Australia is acquiring 72 F-35As to replace the RAAF’s F/A-18 ‘classic’ Hornets, the first two of which, known as AU-1 and AU-2, were handed over in late 2014 and have since been based at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona as part of the F-35 International Pilot Training Center – a brief visit to Australia for the Avalon Airshow earlier this year aside.
AU-1 and -2 are scheduled to be joined at Luke AFB by aircraft AU-3 through AU-10 in 2018.
“Matter of fact, talking to our program people, there is a chance we might actually deliver the first of those airplanes late this year,” Steve Over, Lockheed Martin’s director of F-35 international business development, told media in Canberra on Monday.
“The contract commitment is to do it in first quarter [of 2018].”
Then in December 2018 two F-35s are due to be delivered permanently to Australia, to begin Australian-specific operational test and evaluation.
F-35A AU-3 was inspected on the Fort Worth production line by Australian ambassador to the US Joe Hockey in May, and recently had its vertical tails installed, becoming the first Australian F-35 to feature vertical tails built by Melbourne’s Marand.
— Joe Hockey (@JoeHockey) May 16, 2017
Aircraft AU-3 through -10 are eight of the 90 F-35s currently being built under low-rate initial production (LRIP) lot 10, while a further eight RAAF F-35As will be built under LRIP 11. The next F-35 production batch will be for a total 141 F-35s – Over said the term “low-rate” is now something of a “misnomer” given the quantities involved – with initial funds for LRIP 11 released under two ‘undefinitised contract actions’ signed by the JSF Program Office (JPO) with Lockheed Martin earlier in July.
When final LRIP 11 contracts are signed by the end of the year, Over said Lockheed Martin expects the unit price of an F-35A to be “significantly below” the US$94.6 million “aggregate negotiated” price for an A-model built under LRIP 10.
“The production ramp up is here,” said Over. “And that’s reflected by the production numbers in lot 10 and lot 11.”
LRIP 11 aircraft will be delivered in 2019.
Beyond that subsequent RAAF F-35As should be acquired as part of a “block buy” currently being negotiated by Lockheed Martin, the JPO and JSF partner nations.
“Instead of a single annual contract the JPO will aggregate three years’ of orders and so right now the block buy that we’re pricing for proposal submission includes a total of 440 aircraft,” Over said.
“So a tremendous quantity of aeroplanes, something that not only do we get excited about but our supply chain gets excited about, because it creates that certainty of economic orders that allows us to drive for the absolute best prices from our supply chain.
“This is the one single action that we can collaboratively work together that will drive significant cost percentage out of the price of the airplane.”
Over said the block buy will be the “enabler” that will allow Lockheed Martin to meet its goal of a US$80-84 million price tag for an F-35A by 2020.
Meanwhile, to date the RAAF’s AU-1 and -2 have flown almost 1,100 flight hours in 700 sorties, Over said.
“They’re flying at about the utilisation rate that a mature weapon system like F-16s or F-18s are returning at. So the airplanes have really been performing remarkably well.”
Four Australian pilots are now certified instructor pilots on the F-35 and two more are in training at Luke.
Overall, 235 production F-35s have now been delivered, with aircraft operating from 12 bases.
F-35 System Design and Development (SDD) is on track to be finalised by the end of the year, Over said, with a last three per cent of all SDD test points to be completed.
“Right now the development program is rapidly winding to a close. We’re within three per cent of the testing to complete the development program and we’re in the final stages of tweaking the Block 3F software that will be pushed to the field later this year,” Over said.
“The full functional capability that we’ve promised with Block 3F is actually flying in [flight test] jets right now and so it’s identifying the things that don’t work quite as the pilots would like for them to work and we’re tweaking through those last little details now.”