The arrival of the first two F-35A Joint Strike Fighters at RAAF Williamtown on Monday marks the start of a process that aims to achieve Initial Operating Capability (IOC) by the end of 2020.
The two aircraft will now begin a two-year verification and validation program that is designed to test how the weapons system interfaces with local ICT systems and infrastructure such as that newly-completed at Williamtown and also underway at RAAF Tindal.
The aircraft are also the first to be hosted on the sovereign Australian version of the F-35A’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) and this will also be comprehensively tested over the next two years.
Further pairs of aircraft will arrive at Williamtown during the course of 2019 and Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies said that eight aircraft will be on the tarmac by the end of next year.
“We’ll be operating the aircraft through 2019 and building up to having eight aircraft by the end of next year and ten to twelve pilots. We’ll also be conducting maintenance training and looking to start (pilot) training ourselves, so we’ll be building up to IOC in a couple of years’ time,” he said.
“As far as IOC is concerned, it is basically 3 Sqn having the ability to deploy as a combat force.”
The two fighters flew to RAAF Williamtown from RAAF Amberley following a flight across the Pacific from Luke AFB, Arizona where they have been in the international training pool since coming off the production line. The landing was preceded by a spirited aerial display from F/A-18 Hornets and formation flying involving both Hornets and the F-35As.
One F-35A was flown by Wing Commander Daren Clare, the Commanding Officer of No.3 Squadron - the first RAAF fighter squadron to operate the 5th generation fighter. Fittingly, three of the four Hornets in the formation were flown by the Commanding Officers of future F-35A units, 75 Sqn, 77 Sqn and 2 OCU.
The delivery flight across the Pacific included a direct flight between Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii and Amberley, marking the longest flight by any F-35 to date.
Once the F-35As touched down, they taxied towards the audience waiting at the newly-built hangars.
"This is the most advanced, multi-role stealth fighter in the world," Minister Pyne said in his address. "It will deliver next generation capability benefits and provide a major boost to our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.
"The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) can get closer to threats undetected; find, engage, and jam electronic signals from targets; and share information with other platforms.
"The JSF is the largest acquisition in the history of the RAAF. In Australia's immediate region, Japan and South Korea are in the process of procuring the F-35A, and are closely aligned with Australia's pursuit of shared strategic, security, and economic interests," Minister Pyne said.
Whilst the two F-35As at Williamtown are the first to arrive in-country, eight further aircraft have been delivered to the RAAF at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, for pilot training. Australian F-35s have flown over 1,800 hours.
In addition, over 50 Australian companies have shared in over $1 billion in production contracts, with significant percentages of that share in specialised manufacturing and professional or scientific services.
65 per cent of Australian production contracts for the aircraft have come from Victoria, with 13 per cent from NSW and nine per cent from both Queensland and SA.
Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies seemed keen to stare down critics of the F-35 program, which has seen protracted negotiations over cost between Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon as well as questions over whether the global fleet was meeting availability requirements.
"How do you excite a RAAF chief?" he asked, pointing to the F-35As. “Today, ladies and gentlemen, the naysayers can take a seat."
Whilst there are still concerns over the program (the US military’s capabilities to repair F-35 parts are six years behind schedule), news has been positive of late. The ANAO has recently given the Australian acquisition tentative approval – no small feat given the scale of the program – and has also approved the significant accompanying infrastructure works, which were also on full display at RAAF Williamtown.