There’s a problem with Australia’s brand new fighter jet—it’s just not that reliable. As a result, it flies about 25 per cent less than it should. Less flying means fewer well-trained pilots, but it also hints at other problems lurking in the background.

Everybody who buys a house or apartment off the plan knows there may be some surprises along the way. Australia’s fighter jets are the same.

Why Australia bought these jets

Australia committed to its new F-35 fighters off the plan in 2002. At the time, the F-35 was still a twinkle in the eyes of Lockheed Martin’s marketers. The US and several European countries had commissioned the aerospace company to design, build and manufacture the F-35, with the first step being a prototype.

Australia’s plan was to buy four squadrons—about 72 jets in total—at a cost of around A$16 billion. The F-35 was intended to replace the air force’s ageing Hornet fighters and F-111 bombers. And back in 2002, when Middle East wars were raging, a short-range stealth fighter seemed more than adequate.

But by 2010, with China firmly on the rise, it became apparent this was a poor strategy. In retrospect, a key error was looking at the F-35 simply as a replacement aircraft without first assessing the changing strategic environment. But by then, too much money had been sunk into the F-35 program to change course.

Then, the F-35 development ran late, and the first tranches of Australia’s fleet weren’t ready to be deployed on operations until December 2020.

Scott Morrison inside an F-35 fighter jet.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a ceremony to welcome the fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets to BAE Systems Australia near Newcastle. Darren Pateman/AAP

Escalating problems

Building the aircraft proved harder than anticipated and this inexorably fed into higher costs.

Much of the money that should have been spent on building the maintenance support system went into trying to fix the aircraft’s continuing hardware and software problems. Accordingly, there are now fewer depots to fix broken parts and fewer spare parts than there should be.

Little of this is in Australia’s control. America’s global support solution (GSS) is used to keeping Australia’s F-35 fleet flying. The GSS manages spare parts, maintenance, supply chain support, training systems and engineering. But the program is new, creating problems both now and into the next decade.

There was a second compounding problem arising from the drawn-out development process: the F-35 jets were constructed at different times over the past ten years in seven different configurations. Think about the maintenance staff having to repair individual aircraft in a large fleet with no single standard configuration. Every repair is an adventure—and a learning experience.

The configuration complexity, insufficient spare parts and slow spare part repair times mean there are fewer serviceable aircraft on the flight line now than was expected even a couple of years ago.

In 2019, the Department of Defence estimated the F-35 fleet would fly 11,800 hours in the fiscal year 2021-22. The real figure, however, is 3,000 hours below that.

In simple terms, Australia is short the flying hours needed to keep a squadron’s worth of pilots combat-ready. This is very worrying, as Australia only has three operational F-35 squadrons in total.

Continuous upgrades at tremendous cost

A perfect solution to this is probably not possible. For example, the two F-35 aircraft Australia bought in 2013 for more than A$280 million are now arguably too old to be upgraded to the current configuration. In terms of flying combat missions, these two aircraft are obsolete.

The US Air Force frets its similarly old F-35s are now just crushingly expensive training aircraft.

Most of Australia’s fleet is planned to be upgraded to be broadly similar to the US fleet, although this will cost even more money. It may seem strange to have to pay extra to upgrade a brand new aircraft on delivery, but that’s not the end of the problems. There is another complication.

Australia’s latest F-35s (as well as the upgraded older ones) use the Block 3F software, a digital operating system designed by Lockheed Martin. It is proving to be just as costly to keep updated as the jets themselves.

Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the US Air Force’s deputy chief of staff, has serious concerns about the outdated software, saying last year:

the block that is coming off the line right now is not a block that I feel good about going up against China and Russia.

He noted recent war games focused on the prospect of defending Taiwan from Chinese air attacks showed:

Every [F-35] that rolls off the line today is a fighter that we wouldn’t even bother putting into these scenarios.

This means Australia’s F-35s appear not to be as good as the potential opposition. It seems Australia is paying to lose the air combat battle.

The only solution: another upgrade

So, what is the solution to these seemingly intractable and eye-wateringly expensive problems?

Lockheed Martin is advocating a major operating system software upgrade: the Block 4. It might not be surprising to hear this is now running years late, with delivery expected in 2027 or later. It is also significantly over budget.

In a small piece of good news, the last nine F-35 aircraft Australia will get off the production line next year, and maybe partly Block 4 compatible. Hinote thinks these F-35s might be capable of fighting against first-rate adversaries.

Read more: With China-US tensions on the rise, does Australia need a new defence strategy?

The bad news is the full Block 4 upgrade now requires a major engine upgrade or even a new engine. So, this means Australia’s current F-35 fleet might not be able to use all the Block 4 software until after 2030 – and at a substantial cost.

Buying another hugely expensive upgrade for a brand new fighter is actually the cheap way out. The US Air Force’s focus is already shifting to the Block 4 upgraded aircraft. Countries like ours with older F-35s will be left to fend for ourselves if we don’t embrace the new technology, as well.

But the costs do keeping going up, and the problems with these F-35 jets haven’t seemed to stop. It’s the price of buying off the plan, which anyone who’s bought a house or apartment would surely know.