Delaying Fighter Deal Would 'Cost Billions'
(Source: Canberra Times; published March 22, 2012)
Defence Minister Stephen Smith's decision to hold back on the order for Australia's next batch of 58 Joint Strike Fighters could cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

The cost blow-out will be compounded if, as indicated, he pushes back the delivery schedule for 12 of the 14 planes in the first batch.

It is widely feared, both within Defence and industry, the two moves could create the air warfare capability gap the government says it is trying to avoid.

The claims come at the same time a senior JSF program executive has called on the Australian government to ''stay the course'' to keep the production line for the sophisticated fifth generation stealth fighter running at maximum efficiency.

Lockheed Martin vice president Tom Burbage told a parliamentary defence committee on Tuesday the postponement of plane orders by the US and other governments currently affected by the global financial crisis was ''the single largest contributor to the increases in the unit cost of the F-35''.

Civilian and uniformed staff in the Defence Materiel Organisation have been working on the detail of the 58-plane order for at least three years. It is due to go to Mr Smith in September or October. His office has declined to comment on whether the recommendation will go to government this year.

Mr Smith is already reviewing the timetable for the delivery of Australia's next 12 planes and has indicated the next 58 are not a priority in 2012.

Any significant deviation from the original procurement program is expected to commit Australia to the purchase of between 12 and 24 extra F/A-18 Super Hornets at a cost of between $3 billion and $6 billion.

It will also likely add significantly to the price Australia finally pays for its JSF fleet.

Mr Smith told Parliament in February he feared ''a delay in the production of the Joint Strike Fighter and the ageing of our classic Hornets'' would create an air warfare capability gap.

''We are committed to receiving two [JSFs] for test and trial purposes in the United States in 2014,'' he said. ''That's still on track. We've publicly said we'll take another 12. The schedule for that is now under consideration.''

Insiders have questioned Mr Smith's suggestion that production delays are likely, saying with the production line now fully operational and 179 US planes deferred, Australia would likely get its planes sooner - not later.

''The Lockheed Martin production line at Fort Worth will still be the largest aircraft manufacturing program in the world - even with the deferred production - between now and 2017,'' we were told.

The next 12 Australian planes were originally due to be built in 2015, 2016 and 2017 with the RAAF aiming to have at least one squadron fully combat ready in this country by 2018.

Pushing orders back will delay local combat readiness, even though US Marines will be flying fully operational JSFs over Australia as early as 2015 as part of the joint training initiatives announced by President Barack Obama last year.


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