HUNTER manufacturer Varley Group has handed over the first two of 29 portable F-35 facilities it is building with Lockheed Martin as part of the joint strike fighter program based at Williamtown RAAF.
At a formal ceremony at Varley’s Tomago factory on Monday, Lockheed Martin Australia chief executive Vince De Pietro said the highly secure fabricated steel units would play a crucial role in supporting F-35 aircraft in the field.
Mr De Pietro said the units came in two types: some would house high-tech electronic equipment used during missions, while the other others would be fitted out to house pilots and other personnel for mission briefings and similar purposes.
Varley was building the units and Lockheed Martin would provide the interior technology fit-out, which included highly specialised electronic equipment.
Varley managing director Jeff Phillips said the contract meant 20 new jobs for the three-year life of the project. He introduced two apprentices – fabricators Daniel Masters and Jordyn Hanson – who were both proud to have worked on the project.
“What we have delivered together here is not only a secure environment for F-35 Joint Strike Fighter pilots to be briefed in,” Mr Phillips said. “We delivered a real example of the federal government’s vision for the Australian defence industry and its jobs and growth commitment to the country.”
Congratulating the government on its defence export strategy unveiled in January, Mr Phillips said: “I believe the Hunter is on the verge of a defence jobs and exports boom.
“These deployable facilities are just one of many successful design, engineering and build programs we have running across our Australian and US operations.”
Mr Phillips said Varley had grown recently, making a number of corporate acquisitions, and now employed 800 people including 150 in the United States.
In its 130-plus years, Varley had based its business around the port, and then later around BHP and the steel industry, but it now concentrated on defence, aerospace and specialised vehicles.
Mr De Pietro said Australia’s third F-35A aircraft had rolled out of Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth, Texas, facility late last year.
Lockheed Martin hoped to build more than 3100 F-35s of which 265 had been delivered to 14 bases in five countries.
He said some nations were putting their F-35 support systems in fixed buildings but Australia had opted to use the Varley deployable structures, which could be loaded into military transport planes such as the C-130 Hercules or the C-17 Boeing Globemaster and used in the field, either overseas or domestically.
Lockheed Martin and Varley were awarded a $37.5-million contract in May 2017 to supply 29 of the units to the RAAF.
The planes have had a controversial history, but Lockheed Martin is adamant the project has overcome any earlier problems
Australia has committed to buying 72 F-35As at a reported cost in 2015 of $17 billion.
The RAAF says Williamtown will have two squadrons – one operational, the other for training, with a third squadron at Tindal near Darwin.
It says a fourth squadron is being considered for the Amberley base in Queensland, which would take the fleet of planes to 100.
The first F-35A is scheduled to go into service in Australia this year, with Williamtown’s 3 Squadron to be operational with the planes in 2021.
“All 72 aircraft are expected to be fully operational by 2023,” the RAAF says.