Peter La Franchi / Canberra

Australia is to acquire up to 100 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as the preferred solution for the Royal Australian Air Force's Air 6000 fighter requirement and will formalise Level 3 membership of the JSF system development and demonstration phase (SDD) within a few months.

The decision effectively closes Air 6000, sending shockwaves through the industry teams created by Dassault and Eurofighter ahead of an expected competition in 2006.

Australian defence minister Robert Hill says that, while no competition has been held, there has been sufficient analysis of alternatives to justify the sole source approach to what will be Australia's largest-ever military acquisition.

Hill says the RAAF believes the JSF will be superior to any alternative likely to be available after 2010, including the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon.

He says the only circumstance under which JSF will not be acquired is if the programme collapses. "The decision is to acquire this aircraft which we expect [to enter RAAF service] probably from about 2012 onwards."

Australia will pay $150 million to join SDD at Level 3. However, negotiations for a purchase are not expected until 2006. Chief of air force Air Marshal Angus Houston says the Air 6000 project office will now concentrate on placing the F-35 "into the Australian Defence Force structure for the future… But in terms of comparing a specific aircraft type among candidates, that is well and truly in the past."

Australia, however, is also expected to examine options for earlier deliveries, or the lease of an interim replacement for the RAAF's General Dynamics F-111s, which is considered highly unlikely to reach the projected 2015 out of service date. The F-111 fleet was again grounded last week after an aircraft made a forced landing during training. The RAAF is yet to detail the cause of the incident. JSF will also replace Boeing F/A-18A/B Hornets.

Italy formally signed up to the JSFSDD phase last week, committing $1.028 billion to join as a Level 2 participant.

Source: Flight International