BEIJING – Australia has begun building the infrastructure it will need to support its planned force of at least 72 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightnings, with much of the work driven by U.S. demands for tightened security of the aircraft and their systems.

Construction began this month at RAAF Williamtown, the main fighter base of the Royal Australian Air Force. Initial facilities should be ready at that facility, on the east coast at Newcastle, in 2018, when the first RAAF F-35 to be based in Australia is due to arrive in the country. Work should be completed in 2022 at a cost of about AUS$950 million ($760 million), Defense Minister Kevin Andrews says.

Australia’s second fighter base, RAAF Tindal, inland from the north coast, also will receive a major upgrade. Less work is planned for bases where F-35s will operate from time to time, including the three so-called bare bases in the north — structurally complete but empty airfields where aircraft would be deployed if the country were threatened. The total program is budgeted at AUS$1.4 billion.

A parliamentary committee reviewing the program reported last year that meeting U.S. requirements for security of the F-35s was a key issue behind building the new infrastructure. The defense department said then that program aims included “the physical security of all aspects of the aircraft system, including training, maintenance and operations. … The physical security of aircraft requires a secure apron and maintenance areas, while uninstalled components (software and hardware) require secure storage.”

These requirements significantly exceed those for the 1980s-built Boeing F/A-18A/B Hornets that the RAAF’s four fighter squadrons currently operate, the department says.

The runway at Williamtown is to be extended to 3,050 meters (10,000 ft.) from 2,340 meters (8,000 ft.) as an answer to the challenges of pilot training for an aircraft type that has no two-seat version. Specifically, the concern is a new pilot having to handle an emergency during takeoff. The greater length for takeoff “allows a student pilot to roll down a runway, have an issue develop, and have time to diagnose that, make a decision, and take the appropriate action, and still safely stop the aircraft,” the department says.

Australia is committed to buying 72 F-35As, with a further 28 possible next decade or later. Two squadrons with a total of 24 Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets are counted as a strike, not fighter, force and will be supplemented by 12 EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft.

The need to build special F-35 facilities opened the possibility of rebasing the fighter force. But the department has decided to retain the decades-old policy of keeping three of the fighter squadrons at Williamtown, a temperate location by the South Pacific. Tindal has only one squadron, and the bare bases none, because their hot, dry and remote locations are unhelpful for personnel recruitment and retention.

[Editor's Note: This story was amended to correct the number of so-called bare bases from which the F-35 may operate.]