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Should Australia explore alternatives to an F-35 top-up?

Should Australia explore alternatives to an F-35 top-up?

Has the ongoing debate over the future of the US Air Force’s F-35 fleet opened an opportunity for Australia to explore alternatives for the RAAF?

Has the ongoing debate over the future of the US Air Force’s F-35 fleet opened an opportunity for Australia to explore alternatives for the RAAF?

Last year, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) accepted the 30th of 72 Lockheed Martin-built F-35A aircraft ordered by the Commonwealth government under the Joint Strike Fighter program.

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All 72 aircraft are expected to be fully operational by 2023, with an option to expand the fleet to a maximum of 100 aircraft.  

However, according to Malcom Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), growing uncertainty over the future of the US Air Force’s (USAF) F-35A fleet has opened an opportunity for the RAAF to “take a radically different direction” and explore alternatives to topping up the existing order.  

US Defence officials are reportedly debating whether to commit to the F-35 as the flagship aircraft of the USAF amid the heightened threat environment triggered by a rise in tensions between the US and China.

Davis points to speculation over a potential reduction of the USAF’s purchase of 1,765 aircraft, and discussion about a “clean-sheet design” for a lightweight “fourth gen-plus/fifth gen-minus” aircraft to replace the F-16.

The ASPI analyst also cites a recent US Government Accountability Office report, which suggests that full mission capable rates for the F-35A have not met initial expectations, slipping to 54 per cent compared with the 72 per cent target for the 2020 US fiscal year.

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Sustainment costs over a 60-year life cycle have reportedly increased from US$1.11 trillion to US$1.27 trillion.

Logistics support challenges were also cited in the report, stemming from a reported “failure of the Autonomous Logistics Information System” (ALIS), with the replacement of the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN) also supposedly raising issues.

The report also referenced issues associated with the F-35’s engine, with repairs taking longer than initially anticipated.

“These challenges cannot help but influence debate now emerging that could shape a USAF air combat review and the US Department of Defense 2023 budget,” Davis continues.

“The prospect of escalating sustainment costs, and less than acceptable mission-capable rates will boost calls by proponents for reducing dependency on the F-35 in favour of a new platform.

These reported issues, Davis notes, have come amid the USAF’s development of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) project, aimed at complementing and ultimately replacing both the F-35A and the older F-22 aircraft.

Davis argues that these challenges provide the RAAF with “opportunity, not risk”.

“Rather than automatically defaulting to acquiring another 28 F-35As, the RAAF needs to seize the opportunity to embrace what might emerge from NGAD by the early 2030s and at the same time fully support the development of manned–unmanned teaming via the Boeing Loyal Wingman aircraft as a complementary capability to both the F-35 and a future air dominance system,” he adds.

Davis stresses that the Commonwealth government must not delay consideration of an F-35 replacement until the mid-2030s, calling on the RAAF and Defence to “embrace rapid capability acquisition” by leveraging “e-development” and the “digital century series” of NGAD.

“[A] ‘digital century series’ approach will allow Australia to keep pace with rapidly emerging threats and remain on a technological par with the US,” he writes.

“If the USAF does decide to avoid banking everything on the F-35A, it will be better for Australia to maintain a synergistic approach to capability development between the USAF and the RAAF.

“That would boost our operational and geopolitical capital within the alliance beyond even what exists now and enable us to better respond to rapid adversary capability growth and technological surprise.”

Davis concludes: “The time for new ideas and new thinking on future air combat capability is now.”

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected][email protected], or at [email protected].   

Should Australia explore alternatives to an F-35 top-up?
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