IOC for Australia’s F-35s Ends Covid-hit Year

 - December 29, 2020, 7:52 AM
The first two F-35As for Australia are seen wearing the markings of 2 OCU, the type training unit at RAAF Williamtown. (Photo: Australian Department of Defence)

Australia’s ministers for defense, Linda Reynolds, and defense industry, Melissa Price, jointly declared that the Royal Australian Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-35 had achieved initial operational capability. The December 28 announcement means that Australia joins the U.S., Israel, Italy, Norway, South Korea, and the UK in reaching IOC for the type. Another two countries—Japan and the Netherlands—are operating F-35s on home soil.

Australia ordered the first 14 of a planned 72 F-35As in 2009 under Project Air 6000 Phase 2A, committing to the remaining 58 with Phase 2B in 2014. The first Australian aircraft, serial A35-001, flew in September that year. In December 2018 the first aircraft arrived in Australia, and by the end of 2020 33 F-35As had been handed over to the RAAF. More than 45 pilots and 600 maintenance technicians are assigned to the fleet, which has accomplished more than 8,780 flight hours.

No. 3 Squadron is the first operational unit, based at RAAF Williamtown in New South Wales, where the F-35A is replacing the F/A-18A/B Hornet on a nearly one-for-one basis. The base is also home to 2 Operational Conversion Unit, the type training unit, which is transitioning from Hornet to F-35, and will gain a second squadron, No. 77, which ended Hornet operations on December 11. A third F-35A unit will be established at RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory, and all 72 aircraft are scheduled to be fully operational by 2023.

A third Phase 2C batch of 28 F-35As to replace the current 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets is also under consideration, but a decision has been deferred to later in the 2020s.

A few days prior to Australia's IOC announcement, an F-35A was delivered from the final assembly and check-out (FACO) facility at Cameri in Italy to the Italian air force. It was the 123rd and final F-35A to be delivered in 2020. Of these, 74 were for the U.S. Department of Defense, 31 were for international partner nations, and 18 were for Foreign Military Sales customers.

Under original plans, the Lockheed Martin-led industrial team was to have delivered 141 aircraft during the year but as the full effects of the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, the production target was revised downwards in May to between 117 and 123 aircraft for the year. Covid-related delays were primarily experienced in the supply chain. Among the measures introduced by Lockheed Martin to mitigate the pandemic's effects were accelerated payments to small and vulnerable suppliers.

Highlights for the F-35 program during the year included the first fielding of the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN) to replace the troubled Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS). ODIN is expected to be fully implemented by 2022. The worldwide fleet continued a general improvement in mission-capable rates to above 70 percent, with deployed assets experiencing greater availability rates.

Recent unit news includes the declaration of IOC on December 1 for the F-35Cs of VMFA-314 at MCAS Miramar. The “Black Knights” are the first Marine unit to be ready to integrate into U.S. Navy air wings for carrier deployment, although the Navy’s VFA-147 is earmarked to make the first such deployment for the F-35C next year.

On December 18 the 355th Fighter Squadron “Fighting Falcons” was reactivated to become the second F-35A squadron within the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson AFB, Alaska, which now has 22 of its allotted 54 F-35As at the base. The second Japanese F-35A unit, 301 Hikotai, began to operate the F-35A at Misawa in mid-December, days after it had brought Japan’s front-line use of the F-4EJ Phantom to a close at Hyakuri on December 10. 302 Hikotai has been flying the F-35A at Misawa since 2018.

F-35A Japan
A JASDF F-35A wearing 301 Hikotai’s frog badge was unveiled at a ceremony at Misawa on December 15. (Photo: Japanese Ministry of Defense)