Australia, Canada defence chiefs discuss F-35 programme

Singapore
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Australia and Canada have reiterated their concerns with the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II programme, with Australia repeating the possibility of acquiring additional Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets.

Australian defence minister Stephen Smith made the comments during a joint press conference with his Canadian counterpart, Peter Mackay, who was on an official visit to Australia. Mackay said Canada is still committed to 65 examples of the F-35A, the conventional take-off and landing variant of the aircraft that both countries plan to acquire.

"We're not looking at backing away from our commitment to purchase and procure the Joint Strike Fighter," said Mackay. He added, however, that Canada shares the reservations about the programme expressed by Australia's Smith and former US defence secretary Robert Gates.

"Canada's fleet of F-18 Hornets will have to be taken out of use around 2017, so there is a degree of urgency for us when it comes to the F-35 procurement being on-time and on cost."

For his part, Smith said Australia is still committed to an initial 14 examples of the F-35A. Department of Defence plans have indicated the country could eventually buy up to 100 - a number that has come under increasing doubt owing to delays and cost concerns with the F-35 programme.

One journalist asked Smith about the possibility of Australia acquiring no more than 14 F-35s.

"No, no, no," Smith replied. He said his primary concern is that Australia is "starting to rub up against our capability schedule. The last thing I will allow to occur with our procurement of the F-35 is a gap in capability".

He reiterated the importance of the risk assessment into the F-35 early next year, which could result in Australia adding more Super Hornets.

"Whilst we've not made a decision on this, the obvious possibility for us is more Super Hornets," he said.

On 5 August, the Royal Australian Air Force received two Super Hornets, bringing its total of the type to 20. The final four of a 24-aircraft Super Hornet order will be received by the end of 2011. Australia purchased the Super Hornet as a stop-gap owing to delays in the F-35 programme.

Smith and Mackay also said that the two countries will hold regular Australia-Canada meetings on issues such as procurement, capabilities and budgets.