Peter La Franchi / Canberra

Offers of participation in programmes by Dassault and Eurofighter were not enough to keep competition open

Australia's decision at the end of last month to terminate its Air 6000 fighter competition and sole source the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has stunned potential European contenders.

Australia-based Dassault and Eurofighter officials were in the early stages of a four-year marketing campaign ahead of the expected launch of the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) Air 6000 competition in 2006.

The JSF decision came despite both European companies offering the Australian government a role in their respective industrial programmes. Dassault, for example, undertook an extensive Australian industry briefing programme on the opportunities associated with the Rafale earlier this year.

BAE Systems Australia had put at least two formal proposals to the Australian government on behalf of the Eurofighter consortium in the past six months, the last as recently as 7 June, offering involvement in the Eurofighter enhancement programme.

Dassault and Eurofighter had also received support from one of Australia's major defence industry associations, the Australian Industry Group. In a letter on 3 June to undersecretary for defence acquisition Michael Roche, the association warned that joining the JSF system development and demonstration (SDD) phase must not pre-empt the outcome of the Air 6000 requirement before a competition.

The letter, signed by executive director Leigh Purnell, argues: "Any decision to invest exclusively in one solution prior to a complete value for money assessment… will be seen by Australian industry as the worst possible Air 6000 outcome." Despite the warning, Australia will join SDD as a Level 3 participant and the RAAF will acquire the F-35 as a replacement for its Boeing F/A-18 and General Dynamics F-111 fleets.

A Eurofighter source says Australian companies are already working on the aircraft, while the JSF is unlikely to provide much work for Australian companies in the near future.

Australian defence minister Robert Hill acknowledges that the JSF decision is "a very different way of acquiring an aircraft. What we are doing here is investing in the development of this project. It is more akin to us becoming partners in the development of what is going to be, clearly, the global stealth fighter of the future."

Hill says acquiring JSF now is effectively "leaping a generation of aircraft", while purchasing an alternative would simply mean acquiring JSF at a later date. "So rather than investing in an aircraft that may well be out of date within the next 10-15 years, what we are doing is leaping a generation which gives us much greater confidence that we will be investing in the technology and capability of the future."

Hill claims the decision will save Australia A$600 million ($345 million) compared with selecting a fighter in an open competition. He says the government made the decision following an RAAF assessment of the Eurofighter and Rafale, adding that sufficient technical and financial information was provided by BAE and Dassault to allow selection although no formal evaluation was made.

BAE will not comment on the decision. But company sources say they had been repeatedly assured by the RAAF in the weeks leading up to the decision that the Australian government was not considering a sole-source approach.

Evidence is also emerging that by the beginning of June, BAE officials feared the worst. In its 7 June proposal to Hill on Australian industry involvement in the Eurofighter, BAE argued that its aircraft was not being fairly treated.

A covering letter to the proposal, signed by Jim McDowell, BAE Australia chief executive, claims: "The Department of Defence has not engaged BAE Systems at any level on possibilities and opportunities for Australia arising from the [Eurofighter] Enhancement Programme as is being done with Lockheed Martin on JSF SDD. We trust that no decisions will be taken by the government in this matter until all relevant contributors have had equal access to make their case."

The covering letter ends with an appeal to Hill: "I would ask you with all sincerity, given the uncertainty of the process and controversy that has surrounded defence acquisitions in the recent past, that you ensure that this process iseven handed and is seen publiclyto have been so with a full consideration and exploration of alternatives."

When the government made its JSF announcement, BAE was still awaiting a reply. A Eurofighter source says discussions were continuing with the Australians up to the day of the JSF announcement.

Source: Flight International