The fourth squadron of American Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II jets will soon be established in Australia’s armed forces. Consequently, it is anticipated that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) will have 96 fighters. Lockheed Martin counts Australia as a customer for the F-35 aircraft and an industrial partner for the project. Twenty years ago, in 2002, Australia started investing in the F-35 fighter jet project. To fulfil its obligations as a Tier 3 partner in the F-35 programme, Canberra had agreed to spend more than $16 billion on purchasing at least 76 jets. To this day, Lockheed Martin has already supplied Australia with 54 fighters. The year 2023 has been designated by the government of Australia as the target date for activating all 54 fighter jets.
On the other hand, in Australia, the excitement accompanying the purchase of the first fighters is beginning to wear off, and there are issues over the operation. The programme the government has in place to build the fourth squadron, consisting of 96 F-35s, was the first to be scrutinised by specialists. Mr Brian Toohey, who has written a security related book, is opposed to the government’s plans. Toohey, in a column written in a public policy journal, claimed that Australia needed to demand the return of the money that had been supplied up to this point to purchase the F-35.
F-35 fighter maintenance troubles
There are a few explanations for this. The first factor to consider is the expense of ongoing maintenance. The flight time for each Australian F-35 was 23% lower than what had been projected. This pattern is expected to continue for the next three years. This results in an increased amount of unplanned downtime in the field and increased costs associated with maintenance and storage. To keep its Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fleet operational until 2053, Australia will need to spend 11 billion Australian dollars.
This instantly raises the following question: if problems with maintenance are the reason for decreased flying hours, how many more billions of dollars would the Australian government have to spend to ensure that aircraft continue to operate until 2053?
The acquisition of the F-35 by Australia has been labelled a catastrophic failure by experts. For instance, because of their advanced age, the first two fighters acquired in 2013 for a total cost of $280 million could not be converted to the configuration that Lockheed Martin currently uses.
F-35’s poor combat range issue
Anthony Galloway, a war journalist from Australia, presents a picture that is even more dismal. According to him, the F-35 produced in Australia does not in any way fulfil the requirements set forth by Australia. An illustration of this would be the future conflict with China. A refuelling in flight is required for an Australian F-35 to fly to the South China Sea. Refuelling is necessary for those with a combat radius of 1,000 kilometres to reach their maximum range of 1,500 kilometres. This necessitates the deployment of tankers into the air, which would make for easy targets in the case of a clash with China.
Galloway goes even further in his assessment, suggesting that the aircraft’s true range is 500 kilometres while engaged in combat. This is because the plane will need to change its thrust and accelerate or decelerate throughout the conflict. During a fight, boosting and speeding causes a significant increase in the amount of fuel used, inevitably decreasing the range.
F-35’s hodgepodge Block 3F software
Other local military experts say the advertised “supersonic” option is not true, as, at Mach 1.6, the plane can move in just 90 seconds. After these 90 seconds, the F-35 pilot will need to reduce speed. There are more issues to consider. For instance, as per the opinions of Australian analysts, the Australian F-35 utilises Block 3F software. The time and resources required to maintain and update this operating system are significantly higher than those required by competing systems. This opinion is not only a statement made by an analyst from Australia; it is also a remark made by a high-ranking officer from the United States.
Lieutenant General S. Clinton Hinote, the current Deputy Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, expressed grave reservations about the Block 3F software the year prior. He stated that the currently faulty software is not a useful ally for a fighter engaged in combat with China. The Block 3F software, which serves as the foundation for Block 4, is an assortment of inefficient and poorly written computer code accumulated over decades. It was hurriedly developed to keep the programming schedule on track without appropriate testing to uncover and correct errors before submission. This, in turn, results in significant problems with the software when errors are found in the field. After the analysis was presented to the United States House of Representatives on April 22, 2021, opinions about Block 3F deteriorated further.