Australia’s F-35A Lightning II fleet has passed the final regulatory hurdle required to be deployed on operations.

Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said the Department of Defence “rigorously tested” the aircraft before granting it Initial Operational Capability status.

Over the coming years, Australia will purchase 72 of the advanced fifth-generation fighter aircraft as part of the $17 billion AIR 6000 Phase 2A/B program – which is aimed at replacing the ageing F/A-18A/B Classic Hornets that have been in service with the RAAF since 1985.

The F-35A – the variant chosen by the RAAF – will have a projected life of 30 years in service and be based at RAAF Base Williamtown and Base Tindal.

“The Australian Defence Force now has an F-35A squadron ready to conduct technologically advanced strike and air combat roles, and another squadron dedicated to providing world-class training here in Australia,” said Minister Reynolds.

“While 2020 presented significant challenges to all of us, and travel restrictions made it difficult to ferry our aircraft to Australia, the huge efforts of Defence, industry and our partners in the United States made today’s achievement possible.”

Initial Operational Capability is technically achieved when one or more subsets of the capability can be deployed on operations. A decision to grant the award is based on considering the “personnel, training, major systems, supplies, facilities and training areas, logistics, support, command, and management required to deliver the subset of capability required”.

The next regulatory hurdle is “Final Operational Capability”, achieved when the “entire capability” can be deployed on operations.

The green light to deploy the F-35A comes two months after a joint training exercise between the US Air Force and RAAF at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona has allowed Australia to declare its F-35 capability fully operational. The RAAF currently has 30 based in Australia.

The first F-35A was delivered in December 2018 and all 72 aircraft are expected to be cleared for combat by 2023.

The single-seat F-35 boasts a full-spectrum of low-observable stealth coatings and materials, advanced radar-dispersing shaping, network-centric sensor and communications suites alongside a potent strike capability.

The aircraft comes in three variants: the F-35A – purchased by Australia – is a conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) version; the F-35B is a short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant, and the final F-35C is the carrier type (CV).

“The F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant is designed to operate from conventional runways and is the only version to carry an internal cannon,” Lockheed Martin states. “The F-35A will be the most prevalent variant of the F-35. The U.S. Air Force, as well as the majority of our allied air forces and Foreign Military Sales (FMS) nations, will operate the F-35A, replacing their 3rd and 4th generation aircraft.”

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