Avalon 2017: F-35A woos Australia
The platform generating the greatest interest at the Avalon Air Show was the arrival of the Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter, with a pair of the expensive aircraft touching down on Australian soil for the first time on 3 March.
The Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) F-35As flew from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, stopping over in Hawaii, Guam and Brisbane before reaching Avalon. They completed 21 refuelling brackets from an accompanying A330 MRTT, while a C-17A also flew in support.
All in all, it was a major logistical effort to get the F-35As to Australia – the type's longest haul so far – for what was essentially a public relations exercise.
After the air show, the F-35As will fly back to the US with RAAF pilots at the controls to continue their training regime. Four Australian pilots are undergoing training, while a fifth will head there in a few months' time. Twenty-five maintainers are undergoing ground training too.
These aircraft are being used by No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit, which is currently part of the US Air Force's 61st Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base. The RAAF will stand up No 3 Squadron in Australia next year to begin operating the F-35.
By 2020 the RAAF expects to have enough instructors and maintainers to run its own training courses in-country. By December of that year, the RAAF plans to declare an initial operational capability.
The F-35 programme's woes have been well publicised, and 15 years have passed since Australia decided to invest in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme.
Australia is buying 72 aircraft for an estimated A$17 billion ($12.8 billion). They will be permanently stationed in RAAF Base Williamtown beginning next year. In the early 2020s Australia will decide on how to complete its planned fleet of 100 F-35s.
There is no doubt that the JSF's technology is superior to anything around the world, but what might push air forces over the edge are prohibitive through-life support costs.
After splashing out approximately $100 million per aircraft, will air forces have enough money left in the coffers to continue flying them to their full capacity? Only time will tell whether the F-35 will be a blessing or curse for those air forces operating it.
Nevertheless, when assessing the economic impact of the JSF's production and maintenance programme, accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that the Australian jobs generated by the acquisition will double to 5,000 by 2023.
Certainly, military officials are singing the praises of the F-35. Air Vice-Marshal Leigh Gordon, head of Australia's JSF division, said the F-35 'is the right aircraft for Australia'.
At the same press briefing earlier in the week, Lt Gen Christopher Bogdan, the USAF's F-35 program executive officer, said of those who call the F-35 a dud, 'They're very, very wrong.'
Regionally, as well as Australia, both Japan and South Korea are buying F-35s, plus the US Marine Corps has already stationed the first part of an F-35 squadron at Iwakuni in Japan.
Singapore is another country being touted by many as a potential F-35 buyer.