January 30, 2012 (by Eric L. Palmer) - Today, Australian Defence Minister Smith has stated he is considering delaying purchase of 12 of the initial 14 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft for at least 3 years due to concerns of more problems with the program.
The first production model F-35 Lightning II assigned to the 33rd FW at Eglin AFB
Smith has stated that Australia is contractually bound to purchase 2 of the 14 aircraft for "training purposes" in the United States.
In 2009, then Defence Minister Faulkner approved a commitment to go forward with acquiring 14 F-35s for $3.2B dollars. Before then and since then, the program has suffered significant delays and price blow-outs due to technical defects.
It is unclear what worth the 2 F-35 training aircraft will have. Presently there is a raft of significant technical problems over 10 years after Lockheed Martin was given the contract to develop and produce the F-35. This includes the much delayed pilot training program at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida being effectively grounded. Production aircraft that have been delivered there are unsafe to fly. There is no known date when the F-35 will be cleared for safe flight to train pilots.
Some of the unresolved technical problems include paper-thin weight margins; performance problems, thermal issues, software delays, a faulty helmet cueing system (the aircraft has no heads-up-display like other fighter aircraft), unknown airframe fatigue life knowledge, and numerous other concerns. Fixes for some of these problems won't show up in production aircraft until 2016 at the earliest.
The following quote from a recent U.S. government report had this to say about the current status of the F-35 as a potential weapon's system:
The JSF Operational Test Team completed an operational assessment of the F-35 program and determined that it is not on track to meet operational effectiveness or operational suitability requirements. The JSF Operational Test Team assessed the program based on measured and predicted performance against requirements from the JSF Operational Requirements Document, which was re-validated in 2009."
Australia was originally supposed to see its first delivered F-35 in 2012. Given the technical problems it is unlikely the RAAF will have a working F-35 by 2020, if ever. Australia's current classic Hornets procured in the 1980s will have trouble with airframe fatigue issues before the year 2020.
With all of the current development problems, it will be years before any military service sees an F-35 in anything representing a go-to-war configuration.
Air Power Australia, who have been consistently accurate in predicting risks of the F-35 program have stated time and again that the government and senior defence leadership have been lax at appreciating the certainty of losing regional air superiority if continuing down the current path.
While the government may go for the purchase of more Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to fill the capability gap, it is doubtful that this is the right solution. A 2004 briefing by Australia's New Air Combat Capability Office (NACC) stated if the JSF was "not suitable", that the government would "revert to an open competition" in looking for a replacement for its aging fighter aircraft.