• Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld answers media enquiries during the official ceremony.
    Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld answers media enquiries during the official ceremony. Defence

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has been inducted into BAE Systems Australia’s maintenance depot in Williamtown, NSW for the first time.

The Southern Pacific Regional F-35 Heavy Airframe Depot will perform maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade (MRO) work on regional F-35 fleets for the next three decades, which BAE Systems says will develop a specialist supply chain of around 76 SMEs and contribute some $70 million to GDP by 2025.

An initial team of 32 technicians received a mix of training both in the US and alongside RAAF maintenance technicians at RAAF Williamtown ahead of sustainment work moving to the company’s adjacent facilities.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison attended an official welcome ceremony for the aircraft, which is undergoing structural modifications. Specifically, technicians will review a number of the panel fasteners to ensure there are no corrosion issues.

 Up to four other F-35s will undergo maintenance this year with the next slated for induction into the facility in May and the third in June.

ADM understands no two inductions will be the same and will depend on what capability upgrade modifications are available and allocated out of the US, although the same basic structural modifications will be required.

“This induction demonstrates the world leading capability of our local defence industry here in Australia,” Prime Minister Morrison said. “We want to give as many opportunities to Australian companies as possible which is why there’s already more than 50 local companies sharing in $2.7 billion worth of contracts as part of the F-35 program.”

“We now have 41 fully trained RAAF pilots, nine of whom trained on home soil at RAAF Base Williamtown,” Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said. “We also have more than 225 trained technicians as the RAAF’s F-35A maintenance capability continues to develop.”

The Williamstown depot is one of two in the Asia-Pacific, alongside another located at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries facility in Japan’s Aichi prefecture. That facility has responsibility for all F-35 fleets in the northern Asia-Pacific region, while the Australian facility has responsibility for those in the south - which is likely to include Singapore’s fleet of F-35Bs and any US Marine Corps aircraft in the region.

Although there’s been some speculation as to whether Singapore’s aircraft will be serviced in Australia given an apparent lack of official confirmation, the Global Support Solution (GSS) framework is an opt-out model – meaning Singapore would have to negotiate with the GSS and pay additional fees to service its own aircraft (as the UK has done).

Interestingly, the same applies to the South Korean fleet, which would be serviced in Japan under the GSS model unless Seoul negotiates an alternative arrangement given tensions between the two countries.

Although the Australian facility is assigned as the regional centre for all F-35 variants, it is currently set up to service Australia’s F-35A frames and will add the capacity to service F-35B and C variants as the flow plan for the depot rolls out over time.

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