Peter La Franchi/CANBERRA

The future of the Royal Australian Air Force's Project Wedgetail airborne early warning and control project remains in limbo after the Australian Government's Cabinet National Security Committee (NSC) last week elected not to make a final decision on future equipment requirements.

The NSC, comprising the Australian Prime Minister, finance minister, foreign minister and defence minister, met in Canberra last week to consider 22 Australian Defence Force projects linked to a forthcoming defence white paper.

The examined package included a proposal to restructure Project Wedgetail into a purchase of two batches, of four and of three aircraft, rather than a buy of seven, and proposals to proceed with a centre-barrel fuselage replacement for the RAAF's Boeing F/A-18A/Bs. The upgrade will keep the aircraft in service until 2015.

Despite widespread Australian industry speculation, it is unlikely that the NSC meeting considered the future of the Australian Army's Project Air 87 armed reconnaissance helicopter project.

Australian Government and Defence Department sources indicate that the NSC has asked for a separate submission on Air 87 to be considered at a future meeting. The sources say that a revised submission on Project Wedgetail's future is also to be prepared following last week's meeting.

The RAAF is already upgrading its F/A-18 fleet from A/B to C/D standard in a two phase programme being undertaken by Boeing Australia. The project is intended to be completed in 2004, although a centre-fuselage replacement would extend it by at least another two years.

The Department of Defence first acknowledged F/A-18 fatigue problems in June in a paper prepared as part of an on-going strategic review process.

The paper warned that fatigue would force the fighter to be withdrawn from service before 2015. One option is "to join an airframe renewal programme the United States Navy is considering for its very much larger F/A-18 fleet. If the US Navy decides to replace important structural components we can extend the life of our aircraft. If it does not, we need to take some important steps quite soon to ensure that we will retain appropriate air-combat capability."

A decision not to proceed with the proposed refurbishment programme would effectively require Australia to launch a tender process for its Air 6000 new fighter project within the next three years, if the F/A-18 fleet is to be replaced in full by the 2015 deadline.

Source: Flight International