12 November 2009
F-35 Lightning II (photo : Qinetiq)
Budget Fear Puts Off Buy-Up of F-35 Jets
THE RAAF's plan to acquire up to 100 F-35 joint strike fighters faces a further delay until next year as budget pressures continue to bear down on the Rudd government.
In a long-awaited decision, cabinet's national security committee was due to sign off on the $16 billion purchase before Christmas.
But defence budget pressures and Defence Department concerns about Australia becoming the lead foreign customer for the initial production models of the F-35 fighter are expected to force a postponement until the new year of a government green light for the acquisition.
The expected delay in the NSC's consideration of the joint strike fighter purchase comes as an annual review undertaken by Pentagon analysts found the F-35 program could cost an additional $16bn and face a two-year slippage unless remedial action was taken.
The F-35 joint strike fighter is a "fifth-generation fighter" earmarked to replace the RAAF's F-111 bombers and the FA 18 fighters from later next decade in what will be Australia's largest defence buy.
Already, the planned acquisition has slipped by at least two years, with the air force not due to get its first operational squadron until 2018-19 at the earliest.
The initial squadron could be trimmed to as few as 14 aircraft as Defence planners struggle to find further savings in the $27bn defence budget.
The current plan is for four operational squadrons each consisting of 24 aircraft.
Further delays in the acquisition will mean the RAAF will extend the planned in-service life of its new FA 18 super hornet fighters well into the 2020s.
The RAAF is still planning to buy two F-35s for test and evaluation purposes about 2014 but this timetable could also slip depending on the government's willingness to commit to the joint strike fighter program next year.
So far, only Britain and The Netherlands have agreed to buy test and evaluation aircraft, but none of the US's key JSF partners has signed up to production aircraft.
In an interview with US defence weekly, DefenseNews, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defence for acquisition, Ashton Carter, said earlier this week the findings of a "joint estimate team" showed some costs increases and schedule slips "which we should do everything we can to avoid."
"Those are forecasts which say what will happen if we don't change what we are doing.
"And we should change what we are doing so that those predictions don't come fully to pass," he said.
Mr Carter said he would convene a major meeting on the F-35 program on November 21-22 with one option likely to involve shortening the planned flight test program for the aircraft.
Defence Materiel Minister Greg Combet remains convinced the F-35 is the best choice for the RAAF's next-generation fighter.
On a visit to Washington last month, Mr Combet came away impressed with the Pentagon's commitment to the multi-billion-dollar F-35 program.
"Tens of billions have already been committed to the program, and the US is determined that it will succeed," Mr Combet said.