Melbourne — Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith flagged the possibility that 12 of the 14 Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighters Australia has committed to purchasing may be deferred, following uncertainty within the international program.
The Australian government is already conducting its own review of the JSF program.
Speaking with journalists Jan. 30 during the launch of a force posture review progress report, Smith reaffirmed concerns that the JSF schedule may leave Australia with a capability gap.
Recent comments from U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that he is considering rescheduling the JSF program has prompted further Australian consideration. Last week, Panetta announced that production would be slowed to allow further testing.
“My starting point is straightforward; the U.S. government, which is the purchaser of the single largest number of aircraft, has said in the last few days that it is reviewing the schedule for receipt of the aircraft” said Smith, “and as a result of scheduling and cost issues, I’m doing exactly the same.”
Australia has a requirement for up to 100 F-35As, but has only committed to the first 14.
It will take the first two aircraft from low-rate initial production (LRIP) batch 6, which are due to come off the Fort Worth, Texas, production line in 2014. They will initially remain in the U.S. for training.
The other 12 aircraft are due to come from LRIP batches 8 (four aircraft) and 9 (eight aircraft), for delivery between 2015 and 2017, and it is these jets that Smith will consider deferring.
“We are contractually bound to receive two. We remain on track to receive those in 2014, [and] we will now make a judgment about whether the timetable for the second tranche, the 12, remains on the current timetable,” he said.
Under the original plan, the 14 aircraft were due to arrive in Australia in 2017 and achieve initial operational capability the following year.
A decision on a second batch of 58 aircraft was due to be made at the end of this year. The two tranches are intended to replace the Royal Australian Air Force’s upgraded F/A-18A/B fighters between 2018 and 2020.
A decision on a third batch, to replace Australia’s 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets, is due at a later date and dependent upon future decisions regarding the Super Hornet fleet.
Smith announced the earlier review in Washington last July, and an Australian team from the Defence Materiel Organisation visited the assembly plant at Fort Worth and the Joint Project Office in Washington last October and November.
The team undertook its review using “Scheduled Compliance Risk Assessment Methodology,” and reported back to Smith at the end of last year. Smith will release his findings during the course of 2012, but says it will be sooner rather than later.
“I’m not going to leave it to the last moment; it won’t be late 2012,” he told journalists. “We will make a judgment about these matters after an exhaustive review. We will not allow a gap in capability to occur under any circumstances.”
If the Australian program is deferred, the door may be open for a further Super Hornet purchase, but Smith says no decisions have been made.
Andrew Davies from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said, “The important question is whether you can balance a mature JSF capability with an aging Hornet fleet. The government will either need reassurance that the JSF will deliver on time, or it will need to purchase more Super Hornets.”