The Commonwealth has released the Portfolio Additional Estimates Statements 2021–22 for Defence, and they show drops in flying hours forecast for most of the ADF’s aviation fleet for the rest of the 2021/22 financial year compared to what had been forecast in the original 2021/22 budget.
One that stood out and which has been the subject of recent criticism in the mainstream media was the RAAF’s growing F-35A Lightning II fighter force which now numbers some 45 aircraft at both RAAF Bases Williamtown and Tindal, and is forecast to have 56 aircraft on strength by the end of the financial year on 30 June.
Despite achieving an initial operational capability (IOC) at the end of 2020, the revised figures show the RAAF’s F-35A fleet is now forecast to fly more than 25 per cent fewer hours in 2021/22 than originally planned, dropping from 11,831 down to 8,773 hours, a variation of 3,058 hours.
And despite all 72 aircraft planned to have been delivered and a full operational capability (FOC) be declared by the end of 2023, forecast flying hours over the forward estimates period have also been reduced by 17 per cent to just 12,000 hours in 2022/23, 14 per cent to 12,500 hours in 2023/24, and 13 per cent to 13,000 hours in 2024/25.
The documents offer little information as to the reasons for the 2021/22 shortfall, saying only that the “…F-35A Revised Estimate reflects fleet availability issues, various roles undertaken by EA-18G, and ramp-up hours curve from introduction to service”, while the reductions over the forward estimates are “…based on maturing understanding of F-35A within Air Combat program.”
In a 15 February release picked up by The Australian, Labor Defence Spokesman Brendan O’Connor described the shortfall in F-35A flying hours as, “…a real concern.” He said this shows the “…Government is continuing to scale back flying hours for the (F-35), admitting this critical platform will underperform Government promises for at least the next four years.”
But in a 15 February statement, Chief of Air Force AIRMSHL Mel Hupfeld rejected the criticism in the article as “completely unfounded”, repeating the explanation in the budget documents that, “The RAAF has revised the expected flying hours based on our maturing understanding of the F-35A capability requirements and our expected build-up of the capability.
“Forward estimate flying hours are based on training and capability requirements, not availability,” he said. “To use the basic singular metric of flying hours, to suggest that the F-35A is not satisfying its operational and training requirements, is misleading and simply false. I can confirm the JSF program has met all of its tasking commitments, such as exercises, verification and validation activities and training requirements.”