The arrival of Australia’s first two advanced fighter jets marks the start of a new generation Air Force, its chief says.
The pair of F-35A Joint Strike Fighters – delivered under a controversial $17 billion program – touched down at their new home base in Newcastle to much fanfare on Monday.
The jets have a top speed 1.6 times the speed of sound at almost 2000km/h – and a $124 million price tag to boot.
RAAF Chief Air Marshal Leo Davies said the most significant acquisition in the air force’s history marks more than an upgrade in equipment.
He said the aircraft acts like a conductor for an orchestra, allowing all in Defence to better understand threats on the battlefield.
“The JSF replaces nothing but changes everything,” he said.
“The F-35 requires a new way of thinking and operating. It is a catalyst to transforming us into a fifth-generation fighting force.”
Thousands of people lined streets and beaches between Newcastle and Port Stephens as the two jets, flanked by the ageing F-18 Hornets they’re set to replace, flew the last leg of their journey from the United States to RAAF Williamtown.
The base is expected to receive another eight within a year, with the first operational squadron expected to be ready to enter battle by the end of 2020.
The delivery has been 16 years in the making under the US-led Joint Strike Fighter program aiming to develop a global fleet of 1000 advanced jets.
Australia will spend an estimated $17 billion on 72 of the F-35 aircraft. The cost has been widely criticised including by US President Donald Trump.
Williamtown and RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory will host four squadrons by 2023.
“We throw the word historic around pretty liberally in politics but when the first of class of something as significant as the largest purchase in the air force’s history, that is seriously historic,” Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said.
The full cost of maintaining and operating the aircraft won’t be known until the end of 2020.
Lockheed Martin, builders of the jets, say the cost is expected to be driven down to $80 million per plane by then.
Darren Clare, who flew the aircraft across the Pacific to Brisbane and onto Williamtown, said he tried not to think about the cost of the elite aircraft.
“It’s a very very easy to fly – sometimes too easy,” he told reporters.
“It’s a computer pretending to be an aeroplane. There is just so much information coming in.”