Four F-35A Lighting II aircraft landed at Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Tindal after the base was certified ready for the aircraft at the end of 2021. The F-35A will be based in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia and is replacing the F/A-18A/B Classic Hornet operated by No. 75 Squadron after 33 years.  

Australia Defence Minister Peter Dutton also announced that NT companies Fuel Calibration Services, RGM Maintenance, and Territory Instruments have joined Lockheed Martin’s global supply chain.

We ask the Australian Department of Defence about the importance of the acquisition and the challenges RAAF faced in preparing Base Tindal.

Norbert Neumann:

How important was the acquisition of F-35As to the RAAF?

Australian Department of Defence spokesperson: The F-35A Lightning II—along with the F/A-18F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler—is key to Australia’s air combat capability. The F-35A is critical to achieving the objectives set out in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update to deploy military power to shape the strategic environment, deter actions against national interests, and when required respond with credible force.

The F-35A Lightning II is the Australian Defence Force’s first fifth-generation air combat capability. The F-35A has advanced survivability, lethality and supportability, to ensure Australia maintains a capability edge against current and emerging threats. It delivers air power effects through control of the air, land and maritime strike and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in support of land and maritime forces.

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What were the major challenges in preparing RAAF Base Tindal for the arrival of the F35As?

The stand-up of the remotely located RAAF Base Tindal for F-35A operations entailed extensive cooperation between Defence and industry over many years, and in recent years also involved managing the complexities associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

This included collaboration with F-35 Program Prime Contractor, Lockheed Martin to support aircraft maintenance at the base; and F135 engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney to ensure that Tindal is effectively set up for long-term engine maintenance.

First RAAF F-35As arrive at Base Tindal
No. 75 Squadron F-35A Lightning II aircraft A35-029 arrives at RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territory. Credit: Australian Air Force

Which other RAAF bases will host F-35As in the future, and how many F-35A aircraft does Australia plan to acquire by December 2023?

Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) No. 81 Wing units located at RAAF Base Williamtown, New South Wales—No. 3 Squadron, No. 77 Squadron, and the training unit No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit—have completed the transition to the F-35A.

The last remaining fighter unit to changeover from the F/A-18A/B Classic Hornet to the F-35A, No. 75 Squadron located at RAAF Base Tindal, Northern Territory, will transition in 2022. Defence is on schedule for the planned 72 aircraft to be delivered prior to the December 2023 Final Operational Capability milestone.

How significantly will the new F-35A Lightning II aircraft contribute to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue efforts? Are there any upcoming exercises that the new aircraft will be taking part in?

There are currently no defence activities under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. However, there is an ongoing practical security cooperation between Australia, India, Japan and the United States in support of an open, inclusive and resilient region. No. 75 Squadron will capitalise on frequent opportunities to bolster interoperability with US rotational aircraft deployments, and other Enhanced Air Cooperation activities that will take place in the Top End, as announced at this year’s Australia–US Ministerial Consultations.

Amongst the major scheduled upcoming activities is Exercise Pitch Black, to be held in the Northern Territory. Pitch Black is the RAAF’s premier international engagement activity, and Australia’s F-35A will make its debut appearance at the exercise in 2022.