Australian defence minister Stephen Smith has expressed concerns about the Lockheed Martin F-35A and has not ruled out acquiring more Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to plug a capability gap.
"It's quite clear there will be an exhaustive risk assessment done of the current [F-35] schedule and that will be available to the US administration and partners like Australia by the end of the year or early next year," said Smith. "That will enable us to start making judgements about whether we need to make any other plans or take any other action so far as a potential gap in capability is concerned."
He added that "slippage" is to be expected in major technological projects such as the F-35. Nonetheless, "we're now running close up to those schedules, particularly on delivery," he added.
Smith's comments appeared in an official defence department transcript of a radio interview he conducted on a recent visit to the USA.
Asked whether the Royal Australian Air Force would buy additional Super Hornets, Smith said: "That's an obvious option, but we need to take this step by step. It's early days: I don't want people to run or leap to a conclusion that [more Super Hornets] is the path we'll go down. There is more time, and we need to continue to monitor the situation very carefully and closely."
Smith also expressed concerns about future cuts to the US defence budget, which would be likely to affect the F-35 programme. Since February 2010, the US Department of Defense has restructured the baseline schedule and cost estimates twice, adding several years and more than $100 billion to the development and acquisition of the stealth fighter.
Some also question the future cost of maintaining the F-35 after it enters service. Indeed, when discussing the Super Hornet, Boeing emphasises predictable delivery times and costs as key selling points.
Australia still has plans to purchase up to 100 conventional take-off and landing F-35As. Delays in the F-35 programme obliged Australia to purchase 24 F-model Super Hornets as a stopgap. On 17 July, Australia received three Super Hornets, bringing its fleet to 18 of the type. The remaining six will arrive later this year.