Abbott government will buy more Joint Strike Fighters despite flaws
Troubling flaws in the Joint Strike Fighter are still being ironed out, the Pentagon’s project leader has admitted, as the Abbott government prepares to consider giving the go-ahead to a major purchase of the warplanes.
Lieutenant-General Chris Bogdan said on Wednesday that he was still concerned about problems with the cutting-edge stealth fighter’s software and reliability.
But he stressed Australia had ”de-risked” its involvement in the troubled program by leaving its major purchase of fighters until the end of the decade, by which time production will be in full swing and glitches are expected to be fixed.
The US and other partner countries were getting the planes ”many, many years before Australia”, he said in Canberra.
”You are in a pretty good position no matter how many airplanes you intend to buy, because the program for you is less risky now, and the prices of the airplanes keep coming down very nicely.”
The JSF, or Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, is a ”fifth generation” stealth plane set to become the most formidable air combat capability for the US and nine allied countries including Australia.
Despite the tight budget situation and the fact that a Defence White Paper is being prepared for early next year, the powerful National Security Committee of Cabinet is expected within weeks to consider options for buying up to 70 JSFs on top of the two Australia has already paid for.
Defence’s current plan is to start operating its first squadron of JSFs from 2020. The further back it pushes the purchases, the cheaper and more reliable the planes will be. But Australia risks a ”capability gap” – having too few fighter planes for its strategic needs – unless it can replace its ageing Classic Hornets by the early 2020s.
General Bogdan said the cost per plane would fall to between $90 million and $95 million by 2019 – significantly cheaper than the $130 million Australia budgetted for each of the first two planes.
Over the 30-year life of the program, including maintenance, the JSF is expected to cost Australia up to $14 billion.
It is understood there is some urgency about nailing down the timetable for the purchases because Australia needs to book places to train RAAF pilots at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, US.
General Bogdan, who took over the project in December 2012 and makes frequent, frank admissions about its chequered history, said some previously worrisome issues had been fixed, including problems with the high-tech pilot helmet and fears the plane was vulnerable to lightning.
But the plain-speaking former test pilot acknowledged the complex software – requiring more than 8 million lines of code – was ”still a risky, risky business”. And the planes were still unreliable and needed too much maintenance.
”We are taking way too long to get the airplane in the air, our maintenance folks are working way too hard and pieces and parts are coming off the airplane way too regularly because they are breaking.”