In a major milestone marking the increased production of the F-35, the Air National Guard has officially welcomed its first two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters to its ranks at Vermont Air National Guard Base in Burlington.
As a new fifth-generation fighter right from the Lockheed Martin production line in Fort Worth, the F-35s’ arrival represents the first time the Air National Guard has received new production fighter jets of any kind in recent history.
Seven new F-35s will arrive in Vermont through 2019 and the base is on track to receive a total of 20 F-35s.
With stealth technology, advanced sensors, supersonic speed and superior range, the F-35 is the most advanced, survivable and connected aircraft in the world. More than a fighter jet, the F-35's ability to collect, analyse and share data, is a powerful force multiplier that enhances all airborne, surface and ground-based assets in the battlespace enabling men and women in uniform to execute their mission and return home safely.
US Air Force Colonel David Smith, 158th Fighter Wing commander welcomed the arrival of the next generation in America’s homeland air defence force, saying, “The arrival of the F-35 is a significant milestone for the Green Mountain Boys of the Vermont Air National Guard and state of Vermont. The incredible hard work and dedication from our Airmen and the support from our families and community have brought us to this very moment.”
Greg Ulmer, Lockheed Martin vice president and general manager of the F-35 program echoed the sentiments of COL Smith, saying, “As the Air National Guard’s legacy aircraft age and threats advance, the F-35 is essential to maintaining air power now and for decades to come.
“We are proud to partner with and build on the Guard’s rich legacy as we deliver the 5th Generation of air power to the Air National Guard. The men and women of the Guard deserve the most advanced technology – and with the F-35, they will always be a step ahead,” Mr Ulmer added.
With the addition of the Vermont Air National Guard Base, F-35s are now operating from 19 bases worldwide. More than 425 F-35s have been delivered and more than 890 pilots and 8,230 maintainers have been trained. Eight countries have F-35s operating from a base on their home soil and seven services have declared Initial Operating Capability.
The Air National Guard serves as the premier homeland air defence capability for the continental US, a concept which has gained increased traction amongst Australian strategic policy circles in recent months following the release of Hugh White’s latest book, ‘How to Defend Australia’.
Air defence interceptors and the ‘sea-air gap’
The growing capabilities of potential peer competitors and the growing importance of air combat capabilities is of growing importance within Australia's broader force structure and capability development equations – recognising these factors, combined with the ever-shrinking reality of Australia's long vaunted strategic moat in the 'sea-air gap', renowned Australian strategic policy thinker Hugh White presented an idea for a significantly enhanced Royal Australian Air Force to meet these challenges.
White's premise, along with the potential for a doubling of the nation's defence budget, is for the acquisition of some 200 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters armed with the latest in long-range standoff weapons systems to dictate and dominate the terms of engagement throughout Australia's northern approaches, combining the fifth-generation capabilities of the F-35 with other key platforms like the E-7A Wedgetail, KC-30A Tankers and future submarines to severely blunt a potential adversary's hostile intent towards the Australian mainland.
White has used his position of prominence to advocate for a range of force structure, acquisition, modernisation and capability restructuring and developments, shifting from the major acquisition programs identified as priorities of the Australian government’s record $200 billion investment in capability, including:
- Scrapping the $35 billion Hunter Class program – selling the Hobart and Canberra Class vessels;
- Increasing the acquisition plans of the Attack Class submarines from 12 to 36;
- An increase in Australia’s purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and long-range strike capabilities; and
- A consideration of Australia developing or acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities.
While this represents a quick summary of White’s proposal, it perfectly encapsulates his modus operandi – that is the path of least resistance and a belief that Australia is incapable of affecting its own future. White’s primary focus builds on the Cold War-era Defence of Australia policy to focus on "controlling" the sea-air gap by hindering the potential for any adversary to get close to the Australian mainland while exercising a degree of rudimentary sea control and limiting the nation’s offensive capabilities.
Further reinforcing the complexity of dominating the sea-air gap and White’s proposal to focus solely on becoming a "strategic echidna" is commentary by Andrew Davies, in his piece for ASPI, 'What the Battle of Britain can teach us about defending Australia', which seeks to focus on the limitations and challenges facing the air force proposed by White, namely the focus on a massive expansion of the Royal Australian Air Forces’ fast jet force.
"Hugh White’s ‘Battle of Australia’ scenario in which 200 frontline aircraft form a bulwark against a hostile power. The lessons from 1940 mostly apply, with the exception of the rapid production of replacement aircraft, given that the lag time for a new strike fighter is well over a year."
The RAAF's relatively modest fleet of Super Hornets and EA-18G Growler variants provide the nation with a powerful and, in the case of the electronic attack capability, next-generation capacity to dominate the airspace of northern Australia and its immediate approaches, especially when integrated as part of a rapidly mobile and integrated force of KC-30A tankers, E-7A Wedgetails, ground-based sensors and shooter systems as identified in LAND 19 Phase 7B, the Navy's Hobart Class destroyers and JORN.
Expanding Australia's acquisition of the Super Hornet platform, in conjunction with the full planned acquisition of up to 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will enable Australian decision-makers to confidently defend the Australian landmass while also being capable of supporting other regional and global contingencies with the next-generation capabilities required in an increasingly contested world order.
While the future operating environment to the nation's immediate north, particularly in the face of increasingly capable Russian and Chinese airframes and integrated air and A2/AD networks, will necessitate investment in and acquisition of a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the RAAF's fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets beginning in the mid 2030s – investing in a dedicated continental interceptor force will increasingly serve to enhance the nation's capacity for self reliance.
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on the future of Australia's fifth-generation air combat capabilities in future acquisition and force structure conversations in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected] or email [email protected].