06 Januari 2012
The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) in flight during testing. (photo : News Limited)
AUSTRALIA may be forced to purchase more Super Hornet fighter-bombers to prevent a capability gap in the nation's air defences if work on the Joint Strike Fighter is further delayed due to a new US military strategy and budget plan.
Ambassador to the US Kim Beazley, who received a comprehensive briefing from American officials about the changes, conceded production of the stealthy, multi-role JSF now named the F-35 Lightning II may be impacted by the shift to a leaner US military.
"The meaning of what the President (Barack Obama) and (US Defence Secretary Leon) Panetta have had to say for the F35 program is not that there won't be one but that perhaps in the long term the numbers might change and come down bit," Mr Beazley, former defence minister from 1984-90, told ABC News.
"I don't expect that out of this will emerge delays to a successful conclusion of the project but it may have an impact on the cost structure. The impact on delivery, paradoxically, will probably be quite useful."
Australia plans to buy up to 100 F-35s for an estimated $16 billion and has so far ordered 14, with the RAAF's first squadron supposed to be operating by 2018.
Asked if Australia could fill the gap if the F-35s were not ready by that time by buying more Super Hornet fighter-bombers Mr Beazley indicated that was a possibility.
"Well that's of course for defence ministers rather than ambassadors to say but he is always, (Defence Minister Stephen) Smith has always made clear that he keeps options open in terms of addressing any capability gaps," Mr Beazley said.
Development of the revolutionary JSF was already running behind schedule in April last year when The Australian revealed the RAAF was contemplating purchasing 18 more Super Hornets for $1.5bn to fill the gap.
It is understood delivery may be pushed back even further when the proposed US defence budget for 2013 is announced in coming weeks. The budget is expected to detail $487bn in spending cuts and call for a slowing of the pace of production for the F-35 jet.
The Howard government bought 24 Super Hornets for $6bn in 2007 to fill an earlier strategic gap left when the RAAF's F-111 bombers were withdrawn ahead of time because of concerns about fatigue.
But the announcement overnight, which included a new strategic focus towards the Asia-Pacific, may mean Australia could need even more Super Hornets.
"The Americans are very clear that as they proceed with the F35 program they're under close watch by the Australian government and if at any point of time a risk develops to the capacity for Australia to be satisfied with the forcing being that it has for the air defence of Australia then the Australian government will take action," Mr Beazley said.
US company Lockheed Martin Corporation is building the F-35s which are packed with sophisticated radars and other electronic equipment.
The original plan was for Lockheed to build 2443 JSFs for various arms of the American forces with about 500 others going to allies including Britain, Australia, Israel and Canada.
British Defence Minister Philip Hammond today voiced concern about possible cuts or delays in the F-35 fighter program.
Mr Hammond, who is currently visiting Washington, said he would like to speak with Mr Panetta about the impact the US announcement could have on the JSF.
"One of the things I hope to understand in the meetings I am to have later today is what, if any, impact the announcements being made today will have on the Joint Strike Fighter program," Mr Hammond said.
Opposition defence spokesman David Johnston told The Australian Online he was "not concerned" that the progress of the JSF program would be hindered by the US announcement.
However he said America's shifted focus on the Asia-Pacific region would place extra responsibility on Australia.
"Australia is now under the microscope to step up," Senator Johnston said.
"With the current state of the navy and the disinterest of our Prime Minister in defence issues we are at risk of being found wanting."
Acting Defence Minister Warren Snowdon referred The Australian Online to Mr Beazley's comments.