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Top 5 for 2018: Defence Connect’s best F-35 stories

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It has been a big year for the F-35 and Australia’s growing fleet, and we have enjoyed bringing you the best news, information and analysis across Australia’s Defence, defence industry and strategic policy landscape. In this Top 5, we will cover the most popular F-35 stories of the year.

The recent arrival of Australia's first two F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the turning of the sod for Australia's future submarine and future frigate shipyards in South Australia, the announcement of BAE's Type 26 Global Combat Ship as the successful SEA 5000 bidder, mounting concerns about the delivery time frame, cost and capability of Naval Group's SEA 1000 bid, and finally growing regional tensions and arms races are all powerful examples of the topics Defence Connect has covered throughout 2018.

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For the RAAF, the F-35A's combination of full-spectrum low-observable stealth coatings and materials, advanced radar-dispersing shaping, network-centric sensor and communications suites – combined with a lethal strike capability – means the aircraft will be the ultimate force multiplying, air-combat platform.

The F-35A – the variant chosen by the RAAF – will have with a projected life of 30 years in service.

Over the coming years, Australia will purchase 72 of the advanced fifth-generation fighter aircraft as part of the $17 billion AIR 6000 Phase 2A/B program – which is aimed at replacing the ageing F/A-18A/B Classic Hornets that have been in service with the RAAF since 1985.

Australia's growing fleet of F-35s, wide-reaching Australian industry participation and contribution in the global supply chain, combined with increasing combat readiness of the platform around the world, has allowed Defence Connect to cover a range of developments that have shaped the F-35 project over the last 12 months. 

1. F-35 countdown: Fifth-gen missile to enhance lethality and export opportunities

With the combination of full-aspect low observability stealth, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance air frames, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems, these aircraft provide unrivalled air dominance, situational awareness, networking, interdiction and strike capabilities, which are well documented examples of key fifth-generation aircraft combat capabilities. Advanced aircraft require equally advanced weapons systems. 

BAE Systems Australia, in partnership with Kongsberg Defence, has been developing the Joint Strike Missile (JSM), an air-launched variant of the Naval Strike Missile currently in service with Norway, Poland, Germany and the US. 

The JSM is a fifth-generation platform providing the F-35 with a long-range anti-ship and land attack capability. The JSM is designed with a stand-off range to protect the launch platform from being detected and engaged by enemy air defence systems.

BAE’s work on the JSM commenced in 2009 and was supported by the Commonwealth’s Priority Industry Capability Inno­vation Program (PICIP).

In 2015, in response to the ever-changing threat environment, BAE Systems further enhanced the PRF sensors capability. This additional functionality was included in time for the BAE Systems qualification program and has been included in all future sensors.

The BAE Systems qualification program ended in Q4 2017, coinciding with the commencement of the LRIP contract. The LRIP units have been provided to Kongsberg in Q2 and Q4 of 2018.

2. F-35 countdown: Royal Navy completes carrier flight tests

The introduction of the short-takeoff, vertical landing (STOVL) 'B' variant of the F-35 will provide the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, with an unrivalled maritime strike capability. 

The successful at-sea flight tests and acceptance trials for the F-35B onboard the Queen Elizabeth reignited questions about developing and reintroducing a fixed-wing naval aviation for for the Royal Australian Navy.

Australia's Canberra Class LHDs, which are based upon the Spanish Juan Carlos Class vessels, are designed to operate a variety of fixed-wing aircraft, including the F-35B, however, Australia's LHDs were not built at the outset to accommodate the F-35B, lacking a number of structural measures and the specialised heat-resistant coatings designed to counter the increased heat generated by the F-35B's powerful turbine engines. 

As the US Marines continue to expand their operation of the platform and deployment in the region, and following Japan's recent announcement to introduce their own F-35B fleet in response to the growing threat of China's own, growing carrier fleet, the regional F-35B fleet provides opportunities for Australian industry to participate further in the global program. 

Companies like Queensland-based TAE Aerospace and its state-of-the-art engine maintenance facility, which is the Asia-Pacific maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade (MRO&U) facility for all variants of the F-35, including the complex F-35B. 

3. F-35 engineers in top gear for aircraft certification process

The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Division engineers were hard at work in the lead-up to an Airworthiness Board in August to ensure the Australian F-35A's were certified ahead of the arrival of the RAAF's first two aircraft in early December. 

The Defence Aviation Safety Authority (DASA) recently introduced revised terminology and concepts to the ADF aviation environment via Defence Aviation Safety Regulations (DASR). As a result, JSF Division engineers had been working closely with DASA, Air Combat Transition Office (ACTO) and Air Combat Group personnel to align F-35A Airworthiness Board processes and governance activities with the new DASR requirements.

The F-35 Accomplishment Summary was submitted to DASA in late June, six weeks prior to the F-35A Airworthiness Board, scheduled for 1 August 2018. This Airworthiness Board marked an important milestone for the F-35A Project. It will review any aspect of Defence aviation as it applies to the F-35A construct, as well as impose limitations or conditions that may be incorporated in the Military Type Certificate (MTC) or Military Air Operator Certificate (MAOC) being applied for via the Accomplishment Summary.

4. F-35 countdown: Preparing for Australia's super jet

In the lead up to the arrival of Australia's first two F-35As in early December, Defence Connect kicked off the first of a special module for the nation's major defence projects.

Over the course of the month, Defence Connect delivered a daily series of insights covering a range of issues and topics in preparation for the arrival and operation of Australia's F-35s, including:

  • Fifth-generation capability: Sensor fusion, fifth-gen weapons and stealth;
  • Australian industrial participation from primes to SMEs;
  • F-35 supporting local industries and communities;
  • Future of the F-35 and the growth potential; and
  • The RAAF experience: From pilot to the commander. 

This special series provided Australian industry, whether a prime contractor or one of the invaluable SMEs, with the opportunity to tell their story of how the F-35 had impacted their business, their workforce and the opportunities it opened for the future. 

For Defence, particularly Air Force, it provided an avenue to address concerns about the suitability and capability of the contentious, fifth-generation aircraft and highlight the capability and role it would play in transforming the way the RAAF flys, fights and wins in the 21st century. 

5. Lockheed F-35 US exec backs Aussie supply chain

Australian firms supplying components for the F-35 Lightning fighter aircraft stand head and shoulder above their peers and Lockheed Martin’s job would be much easier if there were more such firms in their supply chain, a senior Lockheed told Defence Connect. 

Steve Over, Lockheed Martin director of international business development, said the limit on more Australian firms joining the F-35 program came from the lack underlying aerospace industrial capacity.

"Without question the 15 companies that are supplying pieces and parts for F-35 are head and shoulders above their peers in our global supply chain," he told Defence Connect in an interview in Fort Worth, Texas.

Over named Marand, Heat Treatment Australia, Quickstep, BAE Systems Australia, Lovitt Technologies and Levett Engineering as examples of these fine Australian firms.

"The great thing for them is, they are building pieces not just for Australia’s 72 airplanes but for this program of record, which could easily grow to more than 4,000 aircraft," he said.

For F-35, the current program is for 3,443 aircraft for the eight partner nations and the US. Over said he expected additional foreign military sales would take that to more than 4,000 aircraft produced beyond 2040.

Top 5 for 2018: Defence Connect’s best F-35 stories
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