CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's conservative opposition, which is expected to win elections in September, said on Thursday it supported Lockheed Martin's (LMT.N) troubled F-35 to be the country's next frontline warplane, despite problems and huge cost blowouts.
A day after the Pentagon's F-35 program chief lashed Lockheed and engine maker Pratt & Whitney for trying to "squeeze every nickel" out of the U.S. government, Australian lawmakers expressed confidence in the futuristic jet.
"The air force is supportive of the project, wants the aircraft and sees it as the future, as do we," said Senator David Johnston, defense spokesman for the opposition, which is forecast to sweep away the minority Labor government in a September 14 vote.
"It is pertinent to our immediate region and it fits into our air combat doctrine perfectly, and to some extent leads the doctrine," Johnston told Reuters from Washington on Thursday after briefings on the F-35 with U.S. officials, who told him the aircraft was "over the hump" with its development.
Australia, a close American ally, is one of the largest international customers for the F-35, with plans to buy up to 100 to replace its ageing fleet of F/A-18 Hornet fighters and already retired F-111 strike bombers, at a cost of A$16 billion.
But amid delays and development woes with the $396 billion aircraft, including the grounding of the 51 aircraft test fleet last week, Canberra is also expected to decide in June to double its fleet of 24 Boeing Co (BA.N) F/A-18 Super Hornets to prevent a frontline gap until the F-35 is delivered later in the decade.
That, and a decision to outfit 12 of the Super Hornets as advanced EA-18G Growlers with radar-jamming electronic weapons - means Canberra will have a mixed frontline fleet.
An announcement on the extra Hornets and the timetable for delivery of the first squadron of F-35s, also known as Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), will likely come in June with the government's release of a new defense strategy blueprint.
Johnston, the man likely to decide the purchase next year if the conservatives win, said while both of Australia's major political blocs differed on defense budgeting and timing of acquisitions, the Joint Strike Fighter had broad support.
"At this stage we are optimistic that Australia will be a customer for a very significant number, although what that number will be is still a little bit up in the air," said Johnston.
Defense analysts predict Australia might end up buying between 50 and 70 of the fighters instead of 100, although Canberra could also buy the full number but over a longer timeframe beyond 2020, depending on a budget recovery.
Australian is also closely watching the budget battle in Washington, where $85 billion worth of spending cuts are due to kick in on Friday, hitting defense and possibly orders for 2,363 F-35s among the U.S. Air Force, Marines and Navy.
Lockheed is developing three variants for the United States and eight partner countries that helped fund the plane's development - Britain, Australia, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Canada. Two other countries, Italy and Japan, have also placed orders.
Canada in December flagged it could cut plans to buy 65 aircraft, while Italy has also scaled back orders and Turkey has delayed its purchases by two years.
Australia is the second biggest international buyer after Britain, and its small air force is one of the most technically advanced in Asia and a pointer to emerging regional defense capabilities.
But a slowing of the country's resources export boom is forcing the Labor government to look for savings.
Defense Minister Stephen Smith last May deferred an order for 12 F-35s by two years, and has so far contractually committed to buying only two.
The influential Greens party, which has the upper house Senate balance of power, failed to find support in parliament on Thursday to cancel Australian F-35 orders and put the estimated $13 billion saving into development aid.
The opposition spokesman on military purchasing, Gary Humphries, said a future conservative government would continue with the F-35, as the high-tech jet would smooth cooperation with allied air forces in Japan and possibly Singapore.
"This could be the shape of air power for effectively the 21st Century. The JSF holds much greater promise for Australian air power needs than any other alternative," Humphries said.
"If the JSF fell over entirely, it would put not just the Australian air force, but other air forces around the world in a dire position."
(Editing by Dean Yates)