Key point: The F-35 needs to be able to cover vast amounts of space in order get to where it is needed during a crisis.
I argued in parts 1 and 2 that ultimately it doesn’t really matter how many F-35s and aerial refuelling tankers Australia buys; there are hard limits on how far we can project and sustain airpower based on operating from Australian airbases. If Australia is willing to invest heavily in more enablers like the KC-30A tanker, we could probably project airpower out to around 1,500 kilometres from one mainland base, but we probably couldn’t sustain a presence much beyond 1,000 km. And, due to the number of aircraft the Royal Australian Air Force possesses, we could likely only do it in one place at a time.
If you’re a member of the school of strategic thought that believes the Australian Defence Force should be operating beyond our continent itself and out in the region, then this analysis shows how difficult it would be to provide air support for a deployed task force, for either air defence or close air support for troops engaged on the ground.
What this means is that if the RAAF devoted its entire effort to the task, deployed forces could hope for two F-35As providing sustained combat air patrols over Timor-Leste or mainland Papua New Guinea.
Sustaining airpower over Christmas Island (around 1,600 km from the nearest airbase) would be challenging, as it would over a near neighbour such as New Caledonia (1,500 km) or the planned joint naval base on Manus Island (1,300 km). Sustaining any presence over key chokepoints such as the Sunda Strait (1,900 km) is probably not achievable.