Australia has so far received 30 of its F-35A Lightning II aircraft from the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program and will eventually have 72 of them at a cost of $17 billion. That might seem an eye-watering amount of money, but it's small change compared with the likely cost of our French Attack-Class submarines at more than $90 billion.
All 72 Australian F-35As are expected to be fully operational by 2023. It is the Australian Defence Force's first fifth-generation fighter. [A fifth-generation fighter is a jet fighter aircraft incorporating major technologies developed during the first part of the 21st century; these are the most advanced fighters in operation.]
The F-35 is now in service with Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the US, and UK.
There are three variants of the F-35: the F-35A that we're getting - a Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft; the F-35B - a Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft; and the F-35C - the Carrier Variant (CV) aircraft.
Delays in the JSF production program and cost overruns have led to the question: "Is the F-35 still value for money?"
The short answer to that is that, while expensive, it still represents good value for a Western multi-role aircraft that can operate in most hostile environments.
The F-35 was originally intended to replace a wide range of existing fighter, strike, and ground attack aircraft. Inevitably, an aircraft designed to conduct a wide variety of roles is not optimised for any one of them. To some extent modern software - including artificial intelligence and electronics - can mitigate that, but not entirely.
The F-35A as delivered is a highly advanced multi-role, supersonic, stealth fighter. The US recognises it has some limitations as an air defence fighter. For that reason, the USAF has retained the F-22, F-15 and F-16 as specialised air defence fighters, and the UK will be retaining the Typhoon in that role. Australia does not have a suitable specialist aircraft to retain specifically for air defence.
The F-35 was never specifically intended to be an air defence aircraft, that is a combat aircraft for the defensive interception of attacking enemy aircraft. As one media writer recently commented (inaccurately): "The aircraft ... can perform limited roles but the dream of the JSF leading Western world air defence is in tatters."
Even so, the F-35A can still perform as an effective air defence or interceptor aircraft, particularly in our strategic environment where potential attackers would be less capable than those in Europe.
Acting purely as an air defence aircraft, the F-35A can carry at best a maximum of six air-to-air missiles. Two of those are external and degrade the stealth characteristics of the aircraft (which may not matter depending on the threat environment). The other four are carried internally in the weapons bay.
An F-35A going on an offensive mission (needing stealth) and carrying two offensive weapons would be limited to carrying just two air-to-air missiles. That may be enough for self-defence, but would probably not be sufficient for the aircraft to act as an air defence fighter.
In practice, the F-35 is first and foremost a stealth aircraft, with multi-role capabilities. These roles might include defensive and offensive counter air, land strike, maritime strike, suppression and destruction of enemy air defences, and offensive air support.
The limitations of a multi-role aircraft would certainly have been fully understood by the RAAF when the aircraft was ordered. With the JSF program, the RAAF was buying into an aircraft that would be able to perform all our necessary tactical combat roles to some degree. Considering that the RAAF has a relatively small force of combat aircraft, that seemed to be a sensible decision.
Lockheed Martin's claim that "the F-35 is a multi-role fighter capable of successfully executing any and all missions, including new missions not traditionally fulfilled by legacy fighters" is somewhat of an exaggeration, but that doesn't mean an RAAF pilot can't still get the job done.
He or she might be required to fight into a target area (air to air), defend in the target area (against air and surface threats), degrade enemy electronic attacks, and at the same time destroy surface threats, air threats or pre-planned targets. RAAF pilot training focuses on being able to switch between these various roles.
One of the F-35A's acknowledged drawbacks is its limited combat range (on internal fuel) of only 1239 kilometres, which means that to be most effective it would need to be deployed from bases in northern Australia. The current plan is for the RAAF's three operational squadrons to be based at RAAF Base Williamtown (near Newcastle, NSW) and RAAF Base Tindal (near Katherine in the NT), with a training squadron at Williamtown.
The F-35A is a more expensive aircraft than we anticipated - but it's still the best choice for Australia.
- Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU's Centre for Military and Security Law.