Australia will push back by two years its decision on whether to buy as many as 70 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced this morning.
Smith said the decision, which follows a similar move by the US, would save Australia $1.6 billion over the next four years. Delaying the purchases, however, will almost certainly add to the eventual cost of the already pricey aircraft, especially if other countries follow suit.
The RAAF has so far ordered two F-35As, which are under production and are scheduled to be delivered to a US-based test and development site in 2014. Australia had been scheduled to move next financial year on plans to purchase a further 12 F-35As under phase 2A of Project Air 6000, and a further 58 F-35s under Phase 2B, but that decision will now be made in 2014-15, Smith said.
Smith told reporters that a decision on whether to purchase other fighters to cover any capability gap left by the F-35 delays would be made by the end of this year. He has previously said that buying additional F/A-18F Super Hornets would be the “logical option” to fill such a gap, though consideration may also be given to extending the RAAF’s nearly 30 year-old fleet of F/A-18A/B ‘classic’ Hornets.
The US announced earlier this year that it would delay the acquisition of 179 F-35s over the next five years as part of larger Pentagon budget cuts. That move has already contributed to a nine per cent increase in the Pentagon’s estimate of the US F-35 program’s overall cost, from US$1.38 trillion to US$1.51 trillion. The US has so far stood by plans to purchase 2443 of the stealthy fighters, but its decision to delay early purchases has drawn criticism from JSF partner nations — including Australia — who say the delays will add to their costs.