Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Defense minister says Australia may opt for Super Hornets over Joint Strike Fighters next year

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia has set a deadline of next year to decide whether it will buy Boeing Co. Super Hornet fighter bombers to maintain the nation’s air combat strength or wait for the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to be delivered.
Defense Minister Stephen Smith announced the deadline on Wednesday, telling Parliament that his government will not allow the repeated schedule delays of the Lockheed Martin Corp. JSF program to compromise Australia’s air force capabilities.

“I’m not proposing to wait until the last minute, I’m proposing to recommend to the government that we make that decision next year,” Smith told Parliament.
“Whilst the government has not committed itself to this, the obvious alternative is the Super Hornet,” he said.
Australia is a funding partner in developing the JSF, which the U.S. Defense Department describes as the largest fighter aircraft program in history. Most of the funding comes from the United States, while Canada, Turkey, Britain, Italy, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands are also funding partners.
Lockheed Martin, in conjunction with Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems, is building 2,400 of the next generation fighter jets for the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines as well as the partner nations. But the cost of the program has jumped from $233 billion to $385 billion. Some estimates suggest that it could top out at $1 trillion over 50 years.
Australia has ordered 14 JSFs and has plans to buy as many as 100 for 16 billion Australian dollars ($17 billion). The first two are scheduled for delivery in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
Smith said the government would decide next year whether Australia will buy any more than the 14 ordered so far for about AU$3 billion.
Australia has 71 standard F/A-18 Hornets that are due to retire around 2020.
Australia expects to take delivery of the last four of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets by the end of this year for AU$6 billion. The Super Hornets, built by Boeing in conjunction with Northrup Grumman, GE Aircraft Engines and Raytheon, were ordered in 2007 to maintain Australia’s air force capabilities during the transition to the state-of-the-art JSF over the next decade.
The Pentagon could decide to cut the JSF program or scale it back as part of large-scale budget cuts.
Smith said the biggest variable affecting the aircraft cost is whether the United States decides to reduce the number it produces for its own forces.
“That is something we are also closely monitoring in the context of their defense budget difficulties,” he said.
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