Australia says will make a decision on Super Hornet purchase by mid-year

AVALON, Australia Mon Feb 25, 2013 8:26pm EST

AVALON, Australia Feb 26 (Reuters) - Australia will decide whether to buy 24 more Boeing Co F/A-18 Super Hornets by the middle of this year, Defence Minister Stephen Smith said on Tuesday, amid setbacks to Lockheed Martin's Corp's F-35 warplane.

Australia, a close U.S. ally, has requested information under its foreign military sales agreement with the United States for the potential purchase of the extra Super Hornets, which would double its fleet of the aircraft.

"No decision has been made, no judgment has been made," Smith told reporters at the opening of the Australian International Airshow in southern Victoria state.

"We'll make that decision in the course of this year, I expect by the middle of this year," he said. "But one thing I won't allow to occur is a gap in our air combat capability."

Lockheed's $396 billion F-35, or Joint Strike Fighter, project has suffered numerous setbacks.

The plane was grounded for the second time this year on the eve of the Australian airshow after a crack was found in a test aircraft engine.

The Pentagon revealed on Monday that it was sending parts back to manufacturer Honeywell International Inc after a Feb. 14 incident involving smoke in the cockpit of one of the aircraft.

Smith said Australia is committed to the purchase of an initial two F-35s, but the timing of options for a further 12 and an initial plan to buy a total of 100 remains unclear.

Smith noted the Australian government's decision last year to purchase 12 EA-18G Growlers with radar-jamming electronic weapons that are compatible with the Super Hornet.

"Just as the United States is now effectively operating on a mixed fleet to 2030/35 of Super Hornets, Growlers and F-35s, that potential is there for Australia as well," he said.

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