Australia is keeping its options open with regard to its planned purchase of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, and will decide in late 2012 or early 2013 whether there is a capability that warrants the procurement of additional Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets.

Minister for defence Stephen Smith outlined Canberra's position on the F-35 in a doorstop interview with Australian journalists. Smith was asked how concerns about the F-35's price in Japan and talk of cancelling the F-35 in Canada could influence Australia's purchase of the aircraft.

"There is no mixed message so far as Australia is concerned," says Smith. "Australia's message for some six or more months now has been that we will not allow a gap in our air combat capability to emerge or arise, and as a consequence of that, in the course of this year, we'll be making very careful judgements about whether, as a result of the scheduling of the F-35 moving to the right, there is a need for us to consider other or additional capability."

The additional capability Smith alluded to is the possible acquisition of additional Super Hornets, of which Canberra ordered 24 examples in 2007 owing to delays in the F-35 programme.

Canberra has plans to buy up to 100 F-35s, but is so far only committed to 14 aircraft. Two of these will be delivered in the USA in 2014 to suppport work to train ground crew and pilots. The delivery timing of the subsequent 12 aircraft has yet to be determined, says Smith.

Noting that the US Air Force is considering an upgrade to its fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16s to close any capability gap stemming from delays in the F-35 programme, he says: "I've always been confident that in the end the [F-35] project would get up because of the significant investment made in it."

"My concern has been one of scheduling, one of production, one of availability, and that's why I am being absolutely assiduous about ensuring that we don't have a gap in capability. We'll make that judgement or decision in the course of this year. W've made no conclusions about that, but additional Super Hornets is an obvious option."

Australian media reports suggest Canberra could buy 12-24 additional Super Hornets. There is also speculation that it could convert a portion of its Super Hornet fleet to EA-18G Growler configuration, providing the Royal Australian Air Force with a comprehensive electronic warfare capability.

Source: Flight International