February 28, 2013
Credit: Lockheed Martin
Australia’s conservative opposition, which is expected to win elections in September, said on Thursday it supported Lockheed Martin’s (LMT.N) troubled F-35 to be the country’s next frontline warplane, despite problems and huge cost blowouts.
A day after the Pentagon’s F-35 program chief lashed Lockheed and engine maker Pratt & Whitney for trying to “squeeze every nickel” out of the U.S. government, Australian lawmakers expressed confidence in the futuristic jet.
“The air force is supportive of the project, wants the aircraft and sees it as the future, as do we,” said Senator David Johnston, defense spokesman for the opposition, which is forecast to sweep away the minority Labor government in a September 14 vote.
“It is pertinent to our immediate region and it fits into our air combat doctrine perfectly, and to some extent leads the doctrine,” Johnston told Reuters from Washington on Thursday after briefings on the F-35 with U.S. officials, who told him the aircraft was “over the hump” with its development.
Australia, a close American ally, is one of the largest international customers for the F-35, with plans to buy up to 100 to replace its ageing fleet of F/A-18 Hornet fighters and already retired F-111 strike bombers, at a cost of A$16 billion.
But amid delays and development woes with the $396 billion aircraft, including the grounding of the 51 aircraft test fleet last week, Canberra is also expected to decide in June to double its fleet of 24 Boeing Co (BA.N) F/A-18 Super Hornets to prevent a frontline gap until the F-35 is delivered later in the decade.
That, and a decision to outfit 12 of the Super Hornets as advanced EA-18G Growlers with radar-jamming electronic weapons - means Canberra will have a mixed frontline fleet.
An announcement on the extra Hornets and the timetable for delivery of the first squadron of F-35s, also known as Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), will likely come in June with the government’s release of a new defense strategy blueprint.
Johnston, the man likely to decide the purchase next year if the conservatives win, said while both of Australia’s major political blocs differed on defense budgeting and timing of acquisitions, the Joint Strike Fighter had broad support.