Australia will buy 58 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) at a cost of more than $12 billion
23rd Apr 2014
Australia will buy 58 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) at a cost of more than $12 billion after the Federal Government gave the go ahead for the purchase yesterday.
The extra aircraft will bring Australia's total Joint Strike Fighter force to 72 aircraft, with the first of them to enter service in 2020.
The $12.4 billion price tag makes the Joint Strike Fighters Australia's most expensive Defence asset.
The Government says it will also consider the option of buying another squadron of the next-generation fighter jets to eventually replace the RAAF'S F/A-18 Super Hornets.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who formally announced the purchase today, says the JSF is the most advanced fighter in production anywhere in the world and will make a vital contribution to Australia's national security.
"Together with the Super Hornet and Growler electronic warfare aircraft, the F-35 aircraft will ensure Australia maintains a regional air combat edge," he said before the announcement.
"The F-35 will provide a major boost to the ADF's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
"The acquisition of F-35 aircraft will bring significant economic benefits to Australia, including regional areas and local defence industry."
First fighters to enter service in 2020, with new air bases in NSW, NT. The first Joint Strike Fighters will arrive in Australia in 2018 and enter service in 2020.
As part of the announcement, more than $1.6 billion will be spent on new facilities at air bases in Williamtown in New South Wales and Tindal in the Northern Territory.
The F-35 has been billed as the smartest fighter jet on the planet, designed to strike enemies in the air and on the ground without being detected by radar.
But the plane's development has been beset by delays and cost overruns.
The head of the JSF program, US Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, visited Australia earlier this year and declared the reliability and maintainability of the aircraft was not yet "good enough".
In late March the US House Armed Services Committee was told the planes were not affordable to use at the moment. The committee heard software problems could delay the fighter's production, and foreign buyer delays could see countries like Australia paying millions of dollars more per aircraft. Deal includes opt-out clause if costs continue to rise
Defence Minister David Johnston has told AM that there is a way out for Australia if the costs climb too high.
"If Australia decides that the costs have blown out to such an extent, we are not bound to continue," he said.
"We are committed to the program. Every indicator at the moment indicates that the costs are headed in the right direction for us so I'm not anticipating any drama, but should there be a major turnaround in cost then, you know, the option is available for us to leave the program.
"Now, I don't want to do that because this aircraft is simply the best thing happening in air combat at the moment. I think, given the 11 countries that are committed to it, all of whom are our friends, I think the costs will continue to come down."
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has backed the purchase.
"It was Labor who believed that the Joint Strike Fighter was an appropriate addition to our air power," he told Radio National.
"There had been some problems in terms of aspects of the aircraft but it appears that they have been ironed out." Expert says jet may not be best option for Australia's current campaigns
but a specialist in US defence strategy has questioned whether Australia's purchase is good value for money.
The Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon says the aircraft may not be best suited for the military options Australia has found itself undertaking in recent years.
"If you want to be in the high-end combat aircraft business, the F-35 is frankly about as good of a deal as you're ever going to find," he told NewsRadio.
"If Australia wants to be able to have aircraft that can go up against what China might deploy - in way of not only its own fighters but advanced air defences in years and decades [to come] - then I think you want something... like the F-35."
"[But] if you think more about your military needs being the Afghanistan-style operations, the troubled waters of the South China Sea, counter-piracy, peace operations, keeping some degree of regional calm with some turbulence in the ASEAN region but not necessarily China, then frankly it's a debatable proposition whether the F-35 is the best bang for your buck.
"If you think that that kind of high-end threat is not realistically where you're headed with your military requirements, then it's more of a debatable proposition."
Canada getting cold feet over JSF cost overruns Australia's decision to go ahead with the purchase will please Lockheed Martin, the company that makes the JSF.
The JSF project involves half a dozen countries who have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into the development of the jet.
But at least two of those countries, Canada and Denmark, are debating whether to even buy it for their own military.
Scott Taylor, the editor-in-chief of Canadian military magazine Esprit de Corps, says the country's JSF purchase is in doubt because of a "damning" auditor-general's report into cost overruns.
"[The auditor-general found that] the jets and the in-life service support costs are going to be astronomical compared to what they were budgeting for," he told AM.
"Of course, Lockheed Martin is still saying, 'Look, until we know the numbers we can't determine the exact unit price' ... I think every partner in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is looking at that very cautiously."
Joe Katzman is the founding editor of Defence Industry Daily in the US. While he agrees progress is now being made, he warns that cost is still a serious issue, especially since the US is likely to keep cutting back the number of planes it buys because of budget constraints.
"If you look at the Pentagon's documents, the fly-away cost for an Air Force F-35 in the fiscal year 2015 is $US133 million," he said.
"They are hoping that will eventually start reducing into the high 90s [millions of dollars], but to do that they need to get the production rate up to a certain level. That means enough exports, that means enough domestic orders.
"But domestic orders are cutting and the export countries, even the close partners, are buying fewer than expected because of what they can afford."