Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Wednesday the purchase of 58 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters costing A$12.4 billion (HK$90 billion) in a major defence upgrade to maintain Australia’s military edge in the region.
The new aircraft will bring Australia’s total Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) force up to 72, with the first due to arrive in 2018 and enter service in 2020.
The deal with US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin includes an option to buy a further 18 planes and is additional to the purchase of 14 F-35s Australia already approved in 2009.
“The fifth generation F-35 is the most advanced fighter in production anywhere in the world and will make a vital contribution to our national security,” Abbott said.
“It will also be a very substantial boost to jobs and technology here in Australia.”
Abbott said the planes would cost about US$90 million each but pointed out that one of the largest defence purchases Australia has ever made has long been budgeted for.
“This is not new money, it’s money successive governments have carefully put aside to ensure that our nation’s defences are strong,” he said.
“It will ensure our edge as a regional power.”
Abbott said the F-35 will “provide a major boost to the Australian Defence Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities”.
“The acquisition of F-35 aircraft will bring significant economic benefits to Australia, including regional areas and local defence industry,” he added.
The prime minister said some 700 F-35 tailfins would be made at a factory in Victoria and the US-led JSF programme offered Australian manufacturing companies the potential to earn an additional A$7.5 billion.
The government will also consider an option to buy another squadron of 18 F-35s to replace the air force’s fleet of ageing F/A-18 Super Hornets which are due for retirement in 2022.
The overall price tag includes weapons, spare parts and maintenance facilities, with Australia’s defence industry reportedly set to benefit by up to A$1.5 billion in flow-on business.
The fighter programme will see A$1.6 billion spent on upgrading air force bases at Williamtown in New South Wales and Tindal in the Northern Territory where the planes will be based.
Australia had originally indicated it would buy 100 of the jets, and that is still a target figure for air force chiefs, but budgetary constraints under the previous government saw it trim back and delay the order in 2012.
The JSF, costing US$160 million according to Pentagon figures and not due to enter service until 2016, has been touted as a technological wonder and the ultimate stealth attack plane able to evade radar detection.
However it has suffered setback after setback notably with troublesome software. It is seven years behind schedule with a budget blow-out of US$167 billion to more than US$390 billion, making it the costliest weapons programme in US history.
Australia’s Defence Minister David Johnson expanded on the military importance of the F-35 to a country the size of Australia.
“This is a very, very potent force with a range to take out an adversary not seen around the world before,” he said.
“With respect to our neighbourhood I think no one is going to be in that league for some long time.”
Johnson said air combat capability was the cornerstone of Australia’s national security.
“This aircraft is peerless, it has no identifiable rival in the air at the moment. We see it dominating the skies for the next at least 10 to 15 years.
“It’s expensive, it’s highly technical ... but this is a commitment that the world needs to see,” Johnston said.
South Korea has plans to finalise the purchase of 40 F-35 jet fighters from Lockheed Martin later this year while Israel, Japan and Singapore have also expressed interest in buying.
Australia is one of eight countries, apart from the United States, taking part in the JSF programme: Britain, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Turkey.