Lockheed Martin hopes to deliver more F-35s to Australia

By Jamie Freed

AVALON, Australia (Reuters) -Lockheed Martin Corp hopes Australia wants to buy more of its F-35 fighter planes after the country completes a defence review, an executive at the U.S. manufacturer said on Tuesday.

“We hope for the opportunity to deliver additional F-35s beyond” the 72 Australia has on order, Executive Vice President of Aeronautics Greg Ulmer said on the sidelines of the Australia International Airshow.

Ulmer also said Lockheed has talked with Australia about teaming the F-35 with Boeing Co’s MQ-28 Ghost Bat fighter-like drone.

Boeing’s defence division head Ted Colbert said during the air show that a partnership would be “great news”.

In a crewed-uncrewed teaming situation, the F-35 could serve as the “quarterback” and focus on accurate targeting while other aircraft deployed weapons, said Steve Over, Lockheed’s director of international business.

Australia has purchased 72 Lockheed F-35A jets to form three squadrons, with all aircraft scheduled to be fully operational this year. It had initially expressed interest in buying 100.

A defence strategic review considering Australia’s future force posture – including the possible purchase of a fourth squadron of F-35 jets – was handed to the government on Feb. 14.

Defence Minister Richard Marles, in a pre-air show speech on Monday, said the review and the government’s response would be made public in April.

He said the review comes against a backdrop of increased strategic competition between nations in the region.

“In the Indo-Pacific, China is driving the largest conventional military build-up we’ve seen anywhere in the world since the Second World War. And much of this build-up is opaque,” Marles said.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally, has joined the United States in pushing back against China’s growing power and influence, particularly its military buildup, pressure on Taiwan and deployments in the contested South China Sea.

Lockheed’s Over said it would take about four years for Australia to receive more F-35s if it placed an order this year.

(Reporting by Jamie Freed in Avalon and Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Chris Reese, Christopher Cushing and Gerry Doyle)