Joint Strike Fighter

Budget Review 2012–13 Index

David Watt

The Budget has confirmed the announcement on 4 May 2012 by the Minister for Defence that the purchase of 12 of the first 14 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) will be delayed by two years.[1] This, and delays to the decision on the second tranche of the JSF purchase, will contribute $1.6 billion to the savings measures announced in the Budget.[2] This brief highlights some of the major issues and commentary arising from the Budget, and as such, is not intended to provide a comprehensive background on the JSF program.

The decision to acquire 14 JSFs in the Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) variant  at a cost of $3.2 billion was announced on 25 November 2009 by the Minister for Defence.[3] At this point the Government thought it would make the decision about the next (and much larger) batch of aircraft during 2012. The first two aircraft (purchased for test and training purposes) will now be delivered in 2014–15. It is intended that the remaining 12 will follow some two years after this.

Australia’s decision to delay the purchase of the second consignment of 12 JSFs is in keeping with the US schedule for the introduction of the JSF. In its most recent testimony to the US Congress, the US Government Accountability Office pointed out that the US Department of Defense has deferred procurement numbers of the F-35 for the last three years and that a fully integrated F-35 is unlikely to be tested before 2015.[4]  

In light of this, Australia’s decision to delay might be characterised as a straightforward recognition of reality with obvious benefits to the budget bottom line. Indeed, the current Minister for Defence has said:

So we are now essentially on the same timetable for delivery of our first batch of Joint strike Fighters as the United States is.[5]

Most commentators seem to agree with the Minister. For example, Derek Woolner states that:

... the $1.6 billion to be saved by delaying acquisition of the F-35 joint strike fighter has few implications for policy....It is probably a sensible step to ensure what should be a less troublesome purchase.[6]

In addition to this, the US Air Force (USAF) has already taken steps to cover any capability gap created by further delays in the delivery of the F-35. The Air Force announced plans to extend the lives of more than 300 late-model F-16s and possibly some F-15s ‘to fill the gap caused by delays to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program’.[7] In addition to the USAF measures, the Marine Corps has acquired 74 retired Harrier jets from the British Royal Air Force to provide spare parts for its AV-8Bs (the US version of the Harrier), which could help extend their life until the F-35B arrives in the force.[8]

Opposition comment on the decision to delay the purchase of the JSF has all been made within the context of the economic debate surrounding the Government’s desire to ensure a surplus in the 2012–13 Budget. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey pointed out that ‘…of course, the costs of the Joint Strike Fighter will be further down the track for another government to pay’.[9]

In contrast to the major parties the Greens would like to see Australia move away from the JSF altogether:

The Joint Strike Fighter project is a white elephant ‐ Australia should cut its losses. ..Australia should look to other, less costly options. [10]

The decision to purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter goes back to the 1990s. The 2000 Defence White Paper stated that the Government would ‘examine options for acquiring new combat aircraft to follow the F/A-18 and potentially also the F-111’.[11]  ‘Up to 100 new air combat aircraft’ were to be acquired with acquisition ‘planned to start in 2006–07’ and ‘the first aircraft entering service in 2012’.[12] The Rudd Government’s 2009 Defence White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 stated that Australia would acquire around 100 F-35 JSFs as well as supporting systems and weapons. Three operational squadrons of ‘not fewer than 72 aircraft’ would be acquired in the first stage, with the acquisition of the remaining aircraft being undertaken ‘in conjunction with the withdrawal of the F/A-18F Super Hornet fleet…timed to ensure that no gap in our overall air combat capability occurs’.[13]



 

[1].       The F-35 has three main models; the F-35A (the version which Australia is acquiring) is the Conventional Take-Off and Landing (COTL) variant, the F-35B is a Short Take-Off and Vertical-Landing (STOVL) variant, and the F-35C is a carrier-based variant. These are being developed with three of the four United States services in mind; the F-35A for the USAF, the F-35B for the Marines and the F-35C for the navy.

[2].       S Smith (Minister for Defence), Budget 2012-13 Defence Budget overview, media release, 8 May 2012, viewed 8 May 2012.

[3].       J Faulkner (Minister for Defence), F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—Australia’s next generation air power, media release, 25 November 2009, viewed 9 May 2012.

[4].       M J Sullivan, Joint Strike Fighter: restructuring added resources and reduced risk, but concurrency is still a major concern, Washington, Government Accountability Office, 20 March 2012, viewed 9 May 2012. This report provides an assessment of the JSF program in the United States.  A review of how these issues impact on Australia can be found in: A Davies, What’s Plan B: Australia’s air combat capability in the balance, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 11 May 2011, viewed 9 May 2012.

[5].       J Gillard (Prime Minister) and S Smith (Minister for Defence), Transcript of Joint Press Conference, Canberra, 3 May 2012, viewed 8 May 2012.

[6].       D Woolner, ‘Budget cuts under fire’, Australian Financial Review, 4 May 2012, p.50, viewed 9 May 2012.

[7].       G Warwick, ‘USAF to extend lives of F-16s to cover F-35 Delays’, Aviation Week, 8 November 2011, viewed 8 May 2012.

[8].       C Cavas, V Muradian and A Chuter, ‘US to buy decommissioned British Harrier Jets’, Defence News, 13 November 2011, viewed 8 May 2012.

[9].       J Hockey (Shadow Treasurer), Transcript of doorstop interview: 3 May 2012, 3 May 2012, viewed 10 May 2012

[10].     S Ludlam (Australian Greens), Greens: Government must grab chance to get defence spending right, media release, 3 May 2012, viewed 10 May 2012.

[11].     Department of Defence, Defence 2000; our future defence force, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2000, p. 87, paragraph 8.48, viewed 9 May 2012.

[12].     Ibid.

[13].     Ibid., pp. 78–79.

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