With global production of the F-35 expected to increase in the coming year and operational tempo in the US, UK, Japan and Australia taking flight, the F-35 program is transitioning from the development and acquisition phases to the operational and sustainment stages of the fifth-generation aircraft's life cycle.
Australia's growing fleet of F-35s are part of an ever-growing global fleet of aircraft. With a projected 3,500 aircraft to be produced and a total program value of about US$1.4 trillion throughout the life of the aircraft, Australia's role in supporting the F-35 is just beginning.
Australian businesses have benefited from the nation's early engagement and participation in the F-35 program, with companies like TAE Aerospace, Milskil, RUAG Australia, Heat Treatment Australia and Quickstep establishing themselves as key strategic partners embedded within the global program across the manufacturing, training, maintenance and sustainment life cycles of not only Australian aircraft, but those of allies as well.
To date, Australian industry has secured almost $1.3 billion worth of manufacturing, sustainment and maintenance work for the F-35 program, establishing Australian industry as a powerhouse. Recognising this, both prime contractor Lockheed Martin and the US government have invested heavily in Australian industry and its ability to contribute to the program, with major announcements and contract extensions announced in recent months.
Steve Sheehy, director of F-35 sustainment campaigns at Lockheed Martin, told Defence Connect, "Australian industry, particularly SMEs, are critical to delivering price reductions across the manufacturing, operational and sustainment side and Australia is widely recognised as a quantitative and qualitative leader."
While early commitment to the global co-operative F-35 program has secured Australia as a key strategic partner and enabled Australian industry access to global supply chains, Australia’s fleet of F-35s will be responsible for supporting thousands of jobs around the nation. The growing global fleet of F-35s is expected to be a boon for Australian industry as well, as the fleet of aircraft in the Asia-Pacific region continues to expand.
"For Australian industry the real question we want to ask is, are you ready to support the global fleet?" Sheehy said.
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. More than 340 F-35s are operating today with partner nations, more than 700 pilots and 6,500 maintainers have been trained, and the F-35 fleet has surpassed more than 170,000 cumulative flight hours.
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-18A/B Classic Hornets that have been in service with the RAAF since 1985.