On December 10 the ninth and tenth Lockheed Martin F-35As for the Royal Australian Air Force arrived at RAAF Base Williamtown, New South Wales. With the RAAF’s previous eight F-35As having been retained with the U.S. Air Force’s 61st Fighter Squadron for training at Luke AFB, Arizona, the two aircraft are the first to enter service with the RAAF on home soil.
The pair flew in from Luke with a stopover at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, before flying to RAAF Amberley in Queensland in what is the longest sector yet flown by the F-35. They were joined by three F/A-18 Hornets from the remaining F/A-18A/B units (Nos 75 and 77 Squadrons, and 2 OCU) for the final flight into Williamtown, where they were greeted by Australia's ministers for defense, the Hon. Christopher Pyne MP, and defense industry, the Hon. Steven Ciobo MP.
“The Joint Strike Fighter is the largest acquisition in the history of the Royal Australian Air Force, and is a key part of the government’s $200 billion build-up in defense capability,” said Pyne. “This is the most advanced, multi-role stealth fighter in the world. It will deliver next-generation capability benefits and provide a major boost to our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.” Australia is buying 72 F-35As, with another 28 being eyed for the future.
Ciobo reminded the audience that the aircraft creates significant opportunities for the Australian defense industry. “Australian industry is manufacturing parts that will be fitted to every F-35 in production globally, and more than 50 Australian companies have directly shared in Aus$1.2 billion [$860 million] in production contracts to date. Up to 1,500 contractors have worked on the construction of the facilities to accommodate the F-35A at RAAF Base Williamtown.”
No. 3 Squadron is the first of the F/A-18A/B Hornet RAAF units to convert to the F-35A and is scheduled to have eight aircraft by the end of 2019, with Initial Operating Capability to be declared in 2020. The “legacy” Hornet is due to be retired in 2023. In addition to Williamtown, RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory is also due to host F-35s.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific another base with a very similar name may also become an F-35 base in the future. The U.S. Air Force is recommending Tyndall AFB in Florida as an operating location for the Lightning II. The base was badly damaged on October 10 by Hurricane Michael and funding has been earmarked for reconstruction. The Air Force would like to spend that money in part on adapting the base for F-35 operations, having assessed the base as suitable for the location of up to three squadrons, or 72 aircraft, from 2023. The Air Force's plan does not affect the future of F-35 bases announced previously.
Tyndall AFB is currently home to the 325th Fighter Wing, which comprises an operational and training squadrons for the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Under the plan the operational aircraft would be redistributed around other front-line units at Langley (Virginia), Hickam (Hawaii) and Elmendorf (Alaska), allowing those squadrons to increase in size from 21 to 24 aircraft. The F-22 training squadron has temporarily moved its operations to nearby Eglin AFB. There has been no decision made regarding its future operating location.
It could remain at Eglin, especially as the base is to imminently lose U.S. Navy F-35C training squadron VFA-101, which has been operating in that role since 2011. With initial F-35C deliveries focused primarily on the Pacific Fleet, the U.S. Navy has decided to concentrate the training effort—for now at least—at the West Coast training squadron, VFA-125 “Rough Raiders” at NAS Lemoore, California. VFA-101’s personnel and assets are to merge with those of VFA-125 by July 2019. However, the squadron’s traditions and “Grim Reapers” name are being maintained intact should a new VFA-101 be re-established as the East Coast training unit in the future.