While this number is still less than the 100 Australia had originally planned to buy when it became one of the eight partner countries in the F-35 program, the move is welcome news for the F-35 program as there had a slight possibility that the number would have been even less.
The F-18E/F was suggested by some as a viable candidate to replace some of the F-35 aircraft. This would have reduced the number of F-35 to be build and that would in turn raise the cost of the F-35, which is already troubled by escalating costs and other technical problems during development.
Barring future costs increases, the aircraft are expected to cost around $11.5 billion and this makes it the largest commitment to the F-35 program, outside of the United States. The first aircraft are scheduled to be delivered in 2018 and should enter operational service in 2020.
If the current F-18E/F in service are eventually replaced by the F-35 when they are scheduled to be replaced, Australia could eventually approach 100 aircraft, the number it has originally planned to acquire.
F-35 versus J-20 / PAK-FAStill, the F-35 faces some unresolved issues. Not only in Australia, but also in other countries such as South Korea and Japan. Assuming that development proceeds smoothly and the type enters service after 2020, it could very possibly face other fifth-generation aircraft that are now being developed by Russia and China.
Unlike the F-35, the latter designs from China and Russia are designed primarily for air superiority from the ground up. On the other hand, the F-35 design is expected to fulfill a wide range of roles which has led to conflicting requirements.
Too many conflicting requirements in any design will inevitably lead to a compromised design that cannot excel in any one role. The F-35 will have to rely greatly on its electronics in a fight with Russian and Chinese aircraft as its airframe is not really ideal for the type of high performance expected in the air superiority role.
As a single-engined aircraft with less size and range than twin-engined designs, the F-35 is arguably not really suited in the Asia Pacific region, where vast distances need to be covered by aircraft to be really effective.
The Chinese J-20 and Russian PAK-FA are both large, twin-engined designs for good reason, since the local geography of both Russia and China demands air superiority aircraft with good range and speed.
Another important aspect is that by the time the F-35 enters widespread service after 2020, China could very likely be the largest economy, surpassing the United States, which means that China can match, if not exceed, the US in defense spending.
Unlike the past, American fighter designs cannot always count on having the biggest budget around. During say the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the US could always outspend its opponent and that was a crucial advantage.
That made it possible to cover up a lot of mistakes since there was always more money around. Against China with a bigger economy, that won't be the case. China won't even have to wait for defense budgets to be equal because it's a country that can do more with every dollar than the US
The F-35 and other defense projects will increasingly find it very hard to keep ahead of China if it doesn't have as much money to spend on R&D to stay at the cutting edge of technology. If China and Russia decide to team up, cooperate and combine their resources, this process could even be accelerated.
While many people don't think it's possible, there is a realistic chance that the F-35 in the future will not only have to go up against fighters that are cheaper than the F-35, but can also outperform it at the same time.
In the long run, a military can only be as strong as the economy that supports it. Reason why the Chinese economy is of special interest to certain people. If the Chinese economy were to be taken out, the Chinese military would go down with it. Similar to what happened to the Soviet Union/Russia.
By extension, Russia would be neutralized as well in the process. As a resource based economy, the Russian economy would undoubtedly feel the effects if the Chinese economy could no longer be the primary driver of the resource industry that it now is.
Currently, the Chinese economy is still tightly controlled, which limits what outsiders can do to influence it, unlike in other countries. There are capital account controls and other regulations in the financial industry, all of which have to be eliminated in order to adequately affect the broader economy and have the desired results.
If the Chinese leadership could be made to institute reforms that would eliminate those rules that are now in effect protecting its economy, there could be a repeat of what happened before in Russia. Against China and Russia, it's the Chinese economy that's the key.