Joe North, chief executive of Lockheed Martin Australia, explains why the company’s fifth-generation fighter jet will be the “lynchpin” of alliance-based deterrence in the region.
Earlier this year in a speech to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Council, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stressed the importance of addressing geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific as a “defining issue” for the global economy and regional stability.
It has become increasingly clear that if a “free and open Indo-Pacific” underpinned by shared values and the mutual respect of national sovereignty is to be maintained, it will require the sustained focus of an alliance of nations.
The validity of new and emerging threats was underscored when Australia redefined its regional strategic imperatives in the Defence Strategic Update 2020, precipitating the most significant upgrade of the capability and potency of our forces in three generations.
A key pillar of Australia’s ongoing investment in advanced capabilities is the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. As a founding program partner, Australia’s commitment to the Joint Strike Fighter has been unwavering. The Royal Australian Air Force is on track to receive the compliment of 72 F-35As it has ordered to date by 2023 – with 41 of the aircraft currently operating on Australian home soil.
The F-35’s advanced capabilities are transforming RAAF operations.
While the F-35’s physical fifth-generation characteristics represent a step change from the RAAF’s fourth-generation legacy fighters, its ability to integrate and interoperate with other Australian Defence Force platforms and allied forces across air, land, sea, space and cyber domains is also a big part of what sets it apart. It is reassuring then that a number of our strategic allies in the Indo-Pacific are also building their fifth-generation capabilities with Japan, Republic of Korea and Singapore all committed to, and invested in, the F-35 program. The F-35 is the fighter of choice for these nations because it provides a decisive advantage over any potential adversaries.
By 2035 there will be over 300 F-35s operating in the Indo-Pacific from land bases, carriers and amphibious assault ships – an interoperable collective fleet, gathering and fusing data to give unprecedented situational awareness to allied joint forces. The Carrier Strike Group, led by the HMS Queen Elizabeth laden with 18 Royal Air Force and US Marine Corps F-35Bs, is now in the Indo-Pacific as part of its maiden operational deployment, representing a significant regional power projection capability by some of our closest allies.
The RAAF’s current status as the operator of the largest non-US fleet of F-35s was recently reinforced with the handover of our 41st aircraft in July. As our fleet and the fleets of our allies across the region grow, opportunities to exercise together will be critical to achieving a deterrence capability with combat-credible forces forward-postured in the Indo-Pacific region.
During August, nine Australian F-35s with support crews participated in Red Flag 21-3 – the first iteration of the renowned air combat exercise to feature F-35s from the RAAF.
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That the RAAF is operating the F-35 internationally at that level less than a year since declaring Initial Operational Capability (IOC), let alone in the midst of a global pandemic, is a testament to the dedication and professionalism of the servicepeople involved.
Other notable program milestones since the RAAF declared IOC include the fulfilment of Lockheed Martin prime contracts with Australian industry to establish an F-35 airframe repair and upgrade capability at RAAF Base Williamtown and acceptance of the first F-35 into that facility, run by BAE Systems, in February.
May saw the RAAF F-35 fleet’s first deployment for Exercise Arnhem Thunder. And in July, RAAF F-35s exercised with US Marine Corps F-35Bs for the first time during Exercise Talisman Sabre 21. Also, in July, the RAAF achieved a significant capability milestone with the graduation of the first fully Australian-trained operational conversion course of new pilots onto the F-35.
As the capability matures, we are realising more of the F-35’s potential as a force multiplier through integration with other platforms and enhancing interoperability with allies.
Indeed, it was during Talisman Sabre that Lockheed Martin and the ADF demonstrated the ability to exchange real-time F-35 sensor data with non-F-35 platforms, via the F-35’s multi-function advanced data link (MADL), for the first time.
The ability to exchange real time F-35 sensor data from Fort Worth, Texas, to Honolulu, Hawaii, and on to the ADF in Australia represents a new benchmark in joint all-domain information sharing and confirms the F-35 as the most advanced node in the 21st century warfare network-centric architecture.
While the US government has been demonstrating proof of concept testing on this capability since 2016, this was the first such demonstration by a non-US F-35 operator and reinforces the ADF’s emergence as a true fifth-generation force.
The implications for commanders of this degree of advanced connectivity and information sharing between high-tech platforms and across all domains is profound and will represent a gamechanger in their ability to make critical decisions in the battlespace.
In addition to the generational leap in air combat capability that the F-35 brings, it is delivering an enormous contribution to Australia’s defence industrial base. More than $2.7 billion in F-35 production content to date has come from Australian suppliers – and every F-35 produced includes Australian-manufactured components. Lockheed Martin has also established our largest F-35 sustainment footprint outside of the US in Australia, as a further commitment to the stewardship of the F-35 capability and our partnership with the RAAF.
There are more F-35 firsts on the near horizon. Later this year, RAAF Base Tindal’s No. 75 Squadron will welcome the first of its complement of 16 F-35s home for good. Looking slightly further ahead, significant F-35 component repair capabilities in support of the entire Indo-Pacific F-35 fleet will be established in Australia, adding to Australia’s defence industry capacity and resilience.
Every program milestone, joint exercise and sortie is an opportunity for the men and women who operate and sustain RAAF F-35s to further hone their skills. For Lockheed Martin, as the original equipment manufacturer and sustainment lead there is considerable pride in seeing Australia’s F-35 fleet continuing to evolve while demonstrating the capability step change it was designed to deliver.
With its unrivalled fifth-generation capabilities, the F-35 will be key to securing Australia’s national interests and the lynchpin of an alliance-based deterrence arching across the Indo-Pacific region.
Joe North is the chief executive of Lockheed Martin Australia.