CANBERRA Aug 17 (Reuters) - Australia will decide in 2012 whether to continue with a $16.8 billion purchase of 100 of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or seek an alternative amid continuing delivery delays and cost overruns, the government said on Wednesday.
Repeated delays and ballooning costs in the F-35 programme were bumping against delivery and cost limits set by the government and military planners, Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith told parliament.
"I will not allow and the government will not allow a gap in the capability of our air combat capability," Smith said, pointing to 2013 as the last possible decision deadline given a looming air combat gap in the country's military.
"I'm not proposing to wait until the last minute," he said. "I'm proposing to recommend to the government that we make that decision next year."
Australia, which is helping develop the F-35, has committed to buying 14 of the stealth aircraft and had initially planned for first deliveries in 2011. That has now been pushed back to 2014 and even that date may be in jeopardy. The delays could also mean Australia will not proceed to purchase more aircraft beyond the initial commitments.
Australia recently took delivery of the first of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornet multi-role fighter aircraft manufactured by Boeing to replace ageing strike bombers. Smith said Canberra could consider buying more of these in place of the F-35.
The close U.S. ally has already begun a multi-billion-dollar upgrade of its military that includes new air defence destroyers, two large amphibious assault ships, helicopters, tanks, long-range cruise missiles and 12 new long-range missile submarines costing $25 billion.
Lockheed is developing three F-35 versions for the United States and eight international partners at a projected cost of more than $382 billion for 2,443 aircraft over the next two decades. It is the most expensive U.S. arms purchase. ($1 = 0.953 Australian Dollars) (Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Balazs Koranyi)