The F-35A Lightning II is the only aircraft able to meet Australia’s strategic needs, an inquiry by a Senate committee examining the acquisition has concluded.
However, the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee stated in its inquiry report that it “retains a healthy scepticism” about assurances from Defence regarding cost, schedule and capability, and expressed concern that program delays might create a capability gap.
“Considering the history of significant changes to the acquisition schedule over the life of the F-35 program, including the recent re-baselining, together with the limited scope and considerable cost to further extend the life of the classic Hornet fleet, the committee considers it prudent for Defence to develop a hedging strategy to mitigate the risk of a capability gap resulting from further delays,” the report says.
The committee notes that ASPI advised that the most sensible such strategy would be to order another tranche of F/A-18F Super Hornets, with any such decision to be made by 2019 at the latest.
“ASPI explained that this would be the best option as no other fifth-generation aircraft is available on the world market; most if not all of the fixed costs of acquiring the Super Hornet have already been borne; and any other type of aircraft would bring with it new supply chains, and flight and ground crew training requirements, putting strain on the RAAF’s capacity to absorb the several other new types of aircraft in the pipeline,” the report notes.
The committee also expressed concern about the potential for other countries to be prioritised over Australia in the provision of repair parts and the development of software, recommending that Defence develop a sovereign industrial capability strategy to ensure that aircraft can be supported without excessive reliance on others.
And the committee recommended that the government should strive to see Australia established as the Asia-Pacific maintenance and sustainment hub for the F-35.
Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne recently met Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter during a visit to the US, highlighting Australia’s potential as a regional hub for the maintenance of F-35 components.