Australia's Department of Defence is proposing withdrawing Royal Australian Air Force General Dynamics F-111 strike fighters from service between 2006 and 2010 - up to 15 years earlier than planned.

The DoD has prepared an options paper as part of a long-term capability plan review.

The cabinet's national security committee is due to consider a revised long-term capability plan within the next three months. Whether F-111 withdrawal is included in the revised plan depends on whether other viable long-range strike capabilities can be proposed. Australian prime minister John Howard says the government "won't be doing anything that leaves a gap".

The F-111 withdrawal plan mirrors a similar proposal late last year that called for the F-111 fleet to be retired from 2007, rather than the 2015-2020 target.

It is understood that the 2002 proposal was rejected by defence minister Robert Hill because of its adverse impact on employment around RAAF Base Amberley, Queensland, where the F-111s are stationed.

Both withdrawal proposals are understood to argue that the F-111's sustainment costs to 2015-2020 are not affordable relative to the aircraft's capability.

Early withdrawal would release at least A$500 million ($327 million) in the existing defence capability plan over the next six to seven years because proposed upgrades could be cancelled. Complete withdrawal is expected to release about A$1 billion a year from the RAAF budget after 2010.

In June, RAAF chief Air Marshal Angus Houston told a senate hearing: "I am confident we can get [the F-111] through to 2010. The reality is that if we are going to take this through to 2020, as indicated in the white paper, it will be very expensive."

Houston told the hearings that 13 of the RAAF's F-111s are operationally available, these being drawn from 17 fitted with new wings in the past two years.

Source: Flight International