The Australian Defence Force's new Joint Strike Fighter has taken to the skies above the Northern Territory for the first large-scale air combat training exercise since the COVID pandemic hit.
About a dozen Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning II fighters made the trek to the Top End, along with 40 other aircraft and over 500 Defence personnel, for the month-long exercise.
"Exercise Arnhem Thunder 21 marks the first opportunity the F-35 has had to deploy domestically inside Australia," No. 3 Squadron Commanding Officer Matthew Harper told reporters on Tuesday.
"It's also the first opportunity we've had to drop a large number of bombs from that aircraft."
Wing Commander Harper said the NT was a perfect location for the exercise and would give various RAAF squadrons the opportunity to work together to plan missions and execute them.
"It's over land, the airspace is really large and an amazing opportunity to spread out and practise our operations in a contested environment," he said.
"It also has some fantastic range facilities, which Defence has spent a lot of money improving over the last few years."
Wing Commander Harper, who is the commanding officer of Australia's first F-35A squadron, said the supersonic fighter was an amazing aircraft.
"Firstly, it's a stealth platform which makes it quite difficult for the adversary systems to detect us," he said.
"Secondly, it has some amazing avionics, which when integrated together provide a remarkable picture for the pilots to use when fighting and share across the battle space."
The fifth-generation fighting jets have a top speed 1.6 times the speed of sound at almost 2000km/h - and a $124 million price tag to boot.
They were developed by Lockheed Martin over 16 years under a controversial program that cost taxpayers $17 billion for 72 of the aircraft.
Other aircraft deployed to the exercise include the F/A-18F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler, F/A-18A/B Hornet, Hawk 127, C-130J Hercules, C-17A Globemaster, C-27J Spartan, KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport, and E-7A Wedgetail.
No. 3 Squadron is normally headquartered at RAAF Base Williamtown, near Newcastle in NSW.
It's the first of four F-35A squadrons expected to be flying in the skies above Australia by 2023.
RAAF Base Tindal's No. 75 Squadron will retire its ageing F/A-18A/B Hornets at the end of 2021 and these will be replaced with the F-35A.
Australian Associated Press