* Australia looks to 24 more Super Hornets
* Concern over Joint Strike Fighter delays
* Minister concerned about potential capability gap
By James Grubel
CANBERRA, Dec 13 Australia will look at buying
24 more Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets in the event of any
major new setbacks to the controversial Lockheed Martin
Joint Strike Fighter project, Defence Minister Stephen Smith
said on Thursday.
That means Australia could buy fewer stealth F-35 Joint
Strike Fighters than originally planned and is another sign that
development partners are growing frustrated by delays and cost
overruns to the $396 billion programme, which is the costliest
programme in Pentagon procurement history.
The announcement comes a day after Canada also said it would
look to other options for its jet fighters due to mounting
concerns over the development and cost of the F-35s.
"Australia's air combat capability is a vital part of our
national security framework. The government will not allow a gap
in our air combat capability to occur," Smith said on Thursday.
Australia foreshadowed the decision in May, when it delayed
orders for its first squadron of F-35s by two years to help with
budget savings and to put Australia's F-35s on the same
timetable as those for the United States.
Australia originally planned to by up to 100 F-35s, for up
to $16.4 billion, but has made no commitment beyond its first 14
aircraft. Australia has committed to two joint strike fighters
to be delivered in 2014-15, but they will remain in the United
States for testing and pilot training.
It was due to decide by the end of this year on the timing
of its next order of 12 F-35s, but that decision has now been
pushed back to next year, while the government considers options
to replace its Classic F/A-18s.
Australia's fleet of 71 Classic F/A-18 Hornets entered
service between 1985 and 1990 and were due to retire by around
Australia also has 24 of the new generation F/A-18F Super
Hornets, which entered service in 2010 and 2011, and 12 of those
have been upgraded with sophisticated U.S. jamming equipment.
Smith said Australia would write a letter of request to the
United Sates, seeking cost and availability information for an
extra 24 Super Hornet under the U.S. Foreign Military Sales
programme. But he said no decision had been made to buy more
Australia is one of the eight international partners
helping fund the development of the F-35, although delays and
increased costs, as well as budget pressures, have prompted some
countries to wind back or delay their orders.
The United States has also delayed orders, while the
Netherlands and Italy have both cut back on their orders. The
other partner countries are Britain, Norway and Turkey.