Australia will make a decision next year as to whether it will acquire additional Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet fighters, following a comprehensive review of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II programme in late 2011.
In an official transcript of a TV interview, minister for defence Stephen Smith stressed that the country will conduct an "exhaustive risk assessment" of the F-35 programme next year in conjunction with other partners in the programme, namely the USA.
Following this, he will make a recommendation "as to whether we need to exercise any other options to ensure no gap forms in the nation's air combat capability." Smith added that the "obvious option" to ensure no such gap occurs is more Super Hornets.
"The Super Hornets are very good air combat planes and if we have to use them as a bridging capacity then that doesn't fill me with any fear at all," he said. "But I'm confident that the Joint Strike Fighter project will get up."
"Our pre-planning [for the F-35] had a lot of padding for cost and for schedule," said Smith. "We're now starting to run up against schedule. We're still expecting to receive our first two planes in the United States in 2014-15 for training purposes. We've committed ourselves to 14. Our Defence White Paper and our Defence Capability Plan talks in terms of around or up to 100, but beyond 2014 the government will make a judgment and a decision as time and events unfold."
Though Smith's comments highlight that no decision about further Super Hornets has been made, they indicate that Canberra could be warming to the idea. On 27 July, Smith, commenting on delays to the F-35 programme, said he did not "want people to run or leap to a conclusion that [more Super Hornets] is the path we'll go down."
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 originally purchased the Super Hornet as a stop-gap owing to delays in the F-35 programme.