11 April 2011

Air Force Eyes 18 More Super Hornets as JSF Delays

11 April 2011

An RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet Block II multi-role fighter practices low-level flying near Amberley in Queensland. (photo : ADF)

Air force eyes 18 more Super Hornets as delays dog our new fighter

DEVELOPMENT of the revolutionary Joint Strike Fighter, intended to provide Australia's air defence through this century, is running well behind schedule and the RAAF may need to buy 18 more Super Hornets for $1.5 billion to fill the gap.

Australian defence officials head for the US this week for an update from Lockheed Martin Corporation, which is developing the stealthy, multi-role JSF, now named the F-35 Lightning II.

The Australian understands they will raise serious concerns about delays in the project and the possibility of an alarming gap in Australia's air defences from 2020 onwards.

A recent report by the US Government Accountability Office indicates the program, already behind schedule and over budget, is likely to experience additional production and cost pressures.

Australia plans to buy up to 100 F-35s for an estimated $16bn and has so far ordered 14, with the RAAF's first squadron supposed to be operating by 2018.

However, the US air force is buying the same variant of the JSF as the RAAF and has pushed back the dates by which it expects to have its first squadrons operational from mid-2016 to 2017 -- and possibly now to mid-2018.

Officials from Lockheed Martin have insisted the problems in the US will not mean any delays in delivering Australia's first 14 aircraft.

But there is growing concern in Canberra that the US delays will mean the RAAF's first squadron may not be ready until about 2020 and possibly later.

Alarm bells are ringing because it's likely that by 2020 the last 30 or so of the RAAF's older "classic" Hornets will have reached the end of their useful lives, even with extensive refurbishment.

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bought 24 Super Hornets for $6bn in 2007 to fill an earlier strategic gap left when the RAAF's F-111 bombers were withdrawn ahead of time because of concerns about fatigue.

Defence officials are preparing for the government a range of options to fill this looming gap in air defences with the most likely being the purchase of a further 18 Super Hornets for about $800 million each.

That would make economic sense, because the $6bn purchase price for the first 24 Super Hornets included the infrastructure to support them and that can be used for the additional aircraft.

Another option might be further refurbishments of the classic Hornets.

Officials from the Defence Materiel Organisation will join delegations from all of the nations involved in the JSF project for a comprehensive briefing on progress this week.

There have been three key issues with the JSF as its development progressed -- whether the F-35 will do all that's promised of it, whether it will be delivered on time and whether it will cost more than anticipated.

The Australian has been told development of the aircraft, which is packed with sophisticated radars and other electronic equipment, is progressing well and is likely to meet or exceed the expectations of the nine nations involved in its development.

But there is a growing acceptance in the RAAF that the aircraft will be late and a steady increase in costs is eating up the considerable margin built into the contract by Australia's Defence Department.

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 Australia, Israel and Canada.

A long-time strong supporter of Australia's role in the JSF project, former RAAF air marshal Errol McCormack has warned that the likely delays mean the Gillard government must get a plan in place to ensure Australia's air defences are effective once the classic Hornets are retired.

Air Marshal McCormack, who now runs a normally strongly pro-JSF group of experienced military flyers known as the Williams Foundation, said in its latest bulletin the government should remember the RAAF's experience with the F-111.

The first Australian F-111s were to be delivered in 1968.

"Even though development and production slipped because of technical issues, Australia adhered to the delivery date rather than the production slot," Air Marshal McCormack said. As a result, in 1968 Australia took notional delivery of underdeveloped aircraft with technical difficulties.

"Consequently, there was a five-year delay in delivery while some of the technical problems were remediated.

"Several modification programs and almost 10 years later, the RAAF eventually operated an excellent bomber."

Air Marshal McCormack said this experience suggested there could be very good reasons for Australia to delay delivery of the F-35 until the production line was "mature" and problems were ironed out.

He suggested a solution could be to refurbish more of the classic Hornets to keep as many of them as necessary flying after 2020.

"In the Williams Foundation's judgment, it would be sensible to wait and see what happens with the F-35, while simultaneously investigating the cost of capability issues involved in maintaining the classic Hornet beyond 2020."

With other elements including the Jindalee Over Horizon Radar network, Australia's air defences could be world class for the next decade, Air Marshal McCormack said. "The issue is: what action is required to ensure that any further delays to the F-35 do not result in a capability gap?" Air Marshal McCormack said.

"The question is too important to be left unanswered."

Concern about air superiority has risen in Canberra and at the Pentagon since China this year unveiled its answer to the F-35. The prototype Chinese fighter jet has arrived years ahead of Western expectations.

It isintended that the the F-35s will replace both the F-111 long-range bombers and the RAAF's classic Hornets.

The new aircraft is also expected to replace all of the major aircraft in the US inventory.

The intention is for the RAAF to get its first two F-35s in 2014, despite the production delays in the US, according to Lockheed Martin.

The first two F-35s will remain in the US, and Australian pilots and ground crew will go to the US to train on the planes.

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