MELBOURNE, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Australia has given its final approval for the first group of Joint Strike Fighters, worth $3 billion for 14 aircraft to be delivered in 2014.
The Ministry of Defense said the F-35 aircraft will be handed over in the United States, ready to begin initial training and test activities and are to replace Australia's F/A-18F Super Hornets.
Australia's first operational squadron will be based at Royal Australian Air Force Base Williamtown and will be ready for operations in 2018, a government statement said.
The acquisition in 2014 is the first of three purchases for three squadrons totaling 72 planes, all expected to be in service by 2021 as announced in the government's Air Combat Capability Review and 2009 Defense White Paper, a ministry statement said.
The announcement comes after the Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in July that it would buy three F-35 squadrons as part of the country's $3.9 billion annual defense spending.
The single-seat Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning, with production at the firm's Fort Worth, Texas, facility, is a single-engine multi-role fighter in three versions -- conventional take off and landing (CTOL), short take off and vertical-landing, and carrier-based.
Australia's first order of 14 planes is for the CTOL version and includes infrastructure and support required for initial training and testing.
The first test flight of the F-35 was at the end of 2006. The main engine is a Pratt & Whitney F135 with a joint General Electric and Rolls-Royce F136 engine as an alternative.
Armaments include an internally mounted GAU-22/A four-barrel 25mm cannon with 180 rounds, or 200 rounds if fitted externally. It can carry two externally mounted air-to-air missiles or air-to-ground weapons, of between 1,000 and 2,000 pound bombs. It will also be the first fixed-wing aircraft to be operational with the U.S. Air Force with Direct Voice Input, a voice recognition system from Adacel Systems and SRI International. The main radar system is the AN/APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array from Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems.
"Approval of this first batch of JSF aircraft is evidence of the Rudd government's strong commitment to defense and our commitment to implementing the Defense White Paper," Minister of Defense Senator John Faulkner said in the statement.
The government aims to purchase the next batch of planes in 2012 but will make its final decision closer to the time. More planes could be ordered, but 72 is the minimum number stated in the defense review.
"By 2012, the Ministry of Defense will have much firmer cost estimates for the remaining aircraft and necessary support and enabling capabilities as part of the planned first multi-year buy that is expected to comprise over 1,000 aircraft for the US, Australia and other partners," Faulkner said. "This will allow for much more effective planning of the final JSF acquisition in the context of the overall Defense Capability Plan."
The government estimates that 25 Australian companies have won around $200 million in the development and early production phase of the JSF under the Industry Participation Plan agreed with the manufacturer Lockheed Martin and its supply chain partners.
The Minister for Defense Personnel, Materiel and Science, Greg Combet, said his department will be closely monitoring the Industry Participation Plan for Australian firms to be considered for participation in the plane's manufacture. "It is important that where Australian companies offer value for money, Lockheed Martin and its JSF industry partners give fair consideration to Australian industry," Combet said.
Combet said in July that he expected around 5,000 defense industry jobs to be created within the first four years. Electronic warfare, high-frequency radar and combat clothing are areas where the government will concentrate procurement.
Development financing for the aircraft comes mostly from the United States. But the United Kingdom, which came on board as an official development partner in November 1995, paid 10 percent of the concept development. Ongoing development is also being paid by Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Norway, Denmark, Israel and Australia. Funding ranges from $2 billion from the United Kingdom to $125 million by Denmark and Norway.
The JSF program's aim is for a common affordable lightweight fighter but with advanced strike technologies. Australia was for years undecided whether to purchase the much more costly F-22, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture already operational with the U.S. Air Force, the only air force to use it because overseas sales are banned by the U.S. government.