Australia will purchase 72 advanced American-built stealth fighter jets to spearhead the nation’s defence for the next fifty years.
The $12.4 billion through-life outlay, to be announced in Canberra today by the Prime Minister, is the biggest defence purchase in Australian history and includes every aspect of the system from hangars to missiles.
The so-called “fifth generation” JF-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) planes will be deployed in three operational squadrons and a training squadron based at RAAF Williamtown near Newcastle in NSW and RAAF Tindal near Katherine in the Northern Territory.
About $1.6 billion will be spent on new facilities at the air force bases.
The Lockheed Martin-built JSF is the most expensive and controversial aircraft ever constructed and the US military is due to purchase more than 2500 of the jets.
The project is running years behind schedule and each jet is likely to cost more than $100 million “fly-away”.
More than a dozen other countries, including the UK, Canada, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Korea and Israel, will take the total number of F-35s in service to more than 3000 worldwide.
The government has already ordered 14 planes and another 58 will be added, taking the total to 72 with the option of another 24 further down the track.
They will enter service from 2018 and will serve alongside 24 Super Hornet fighters already in service with the RAAF.
The jets will replace the RAAF’s fleet of ageing F/A-18 Classic Hornet fighters that will be retired by 2022.
Tony Abbott said the F-35 was the most advanced fighter in production anywhere in the world and would make a vital contribution to Australia’s national security.
“Together with the Super Hornet and Growler electronic warfare aircraft, the F-35 aircraft will ensure Australia maintains a regional air combat edge. The F-35 will provide a major boost to the ADF’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities,” he said.
“The acquisition of F-35 aircraft will bring significant economic benefits to Australia, including regional areas and local defence industry.”
The purchase has the support of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who argues they are long term investment, despite the budget circumstances.
“Labor does think that the addition to our airforce is the right way to go,” Mr Shorten told ABC Radio this morning.
“These defence purchases are necessary for our forward security plans over a number of decades.
Defence Minister David Johnston said that because of the Howard Government’s decision to join during the development phase, Australian defence industry has been awarded over $355 million worth of JSF work.
“It stands to win well in excess of $1.5 billion in JSF-related production and support work over the life of the program creating long-term advanced manufacturing and engineering jobs,” Senator Johnston said.