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Australia faces hard choice in fighter review

The Australian government faces a conflict in timeframes for its air combat review, development of a Defence White Paper and decision points for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter acquisition and Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet deal, according to defence think-tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

The country's new Labor government has launched a review of air power requirements, including the former government's order for 24 Super Hornets to replace ageing General Dynamic F-111s and the planned acquisition of the JSF.

The review needs to be rigorous and systematic and it should be conducted by an independent analyst with extensive experience in the aerospace industry, says Dr Andrew Davies, ASPI's operations and capability programme director.

He says the government has two options - continue down the path of the previous government but with possible changes in aircraft numbers and timing, or the "blank sheet of paper" approach which makes sense but will be time-consuming and expensive. A decision would be made easier with the government's proposed Defence White Paper, but that is not expected to be completed until late 2008 at the earliest.

Maintaining the former government's approach would see the JSF as the centrepiece for Australia's air combat capability. The country is due to make a decision on a A$12-15 billion ($11-13 billion) JSF acquisition late this year.

If the JSF timetable slips further there will be a problem in maintaining a viable number of frontline aircraft, says Davies. The upgrade programme for the RAAF's F/A-18 Hornet fleet will keep that aircraft flying until 2018, but if the JSF has not matured into a suitable frontline aircraft then Australia will require more bridging capability, he says.

The Super Hornet provides an improvement on the current Hornet fleet and a boost in capability at little project risk, but questions have been raised over its capability relative to other aircraft in the region, says Davies. "As a matter of priority, the review should examine hard data on relative performance and decide whether the Super Hornet is a viable bridging capability," he suggests.

If the government does cancel the Super Hornet order, Australia would be responsible for all costs accrued to the date of termination and a possible termination liability, with accrued costs increasing with time, says Davies.

The blank-sheet approach should include "top-down" and "bottom-up" analysis, including strategic aims and force structure coupled with aircraft capabilities, costs of acquisition and operations and programme risks, he suggests.

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