Sunday, November 29, 2015

Australian F-35 in Jeopardy? Senate to Vote on Program after Canada's Withdrawal

By Daniel Flitton 

A push to examine the wisdom of Australia's planned $24 billion fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters - ranking as the nation's largest ever defence purchase - is underway in the Senate.

Greens defence spokesman Peter Whish-Wilson on Friday has urged the Senate's standing committee on foreign affairs and trade to inquire into the suitability of the stealth jet for Australia's strategic interests.

The move comes after the election last month of new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on a promise to abandon plans to purchase the troubled fighter.

Officials from Australia's Defence Department told a Senate hearing a Canadian withdrawal from the F-35 project would not have a cost to Australia, only for US Air Force Lieutenant-General Chris Bogdan to soon afterwards estimate the price of each aircraft would likely increase by up to US$1 million.

"This is about the public's right to know how their money is being spent and if we are getting value for money," Senator Whish-Wilson said.

"I would like to see many of the criticisms levelled at this procurement answered by a wide range of experts and discussed in detail at this inquiry."

The F-35 project - which began as a collaboration between the US and eight other nations, including Australia - has been beset by delays, cost overruns and technical difficulties.

The latest concern is a pilot's neck could be snapped by the ejector seat on the warplane.

Australia was forced to purchase additional FA/18 Hornets in 2012 to cover a perceived gap after the expected F-35 delivery date was again delayed.

But in August the US marines announced the first combat ready F-35s would be deployed, and Britain last week committed to buy 24 of the jump-jet variety by 2023 to launch from aircraft carriers.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott was reported to have favoured Australia also acquiring the jump-jet variety of the jet, but this was abandoned in favour of the traditional take-off version.

Senator Whish-Wilson urged the Senate to examine the delays in acquiring the fighters and the cost of the program, and the "air defence needs that the aircraft is intended to fulfil". He also urged potential alternative jets to be considered.

A vote on the proposed inquiry will be held Monday.

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