Australia and Canada share a common concern that the new Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) will be delayed, possibly requiring acquisition of an expensive interim air combat capability.
To present a united front, Australia and Canada will now conduct top level talks on procurement and capability issues of mutual concern.
As well as JSF, that will also touch on submarines, with both Australia and Canada experiencing big problems on maintaining submarine capability.
Visiting Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Canada wasn’t backing away from plans to acquire 65 JSF aircraft but shared all of the same concerns as Australia.
He said the good news was that the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant of JSF, to be acquired by both Canada and Australia, was progressing well, unlike the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) and carrier variants.
“We are purchasing them at a time when they will be in peak production around 2014-15. Our fleet of F-18 Hornets will have to be taken out of use in 2017,” he told reporters. “So there is a degree of urgency for us when it comes to this procurement being on time and being on cost.”
Australia is considering acquiring up to 100 JSF aircraft but has so far contracted to buy just 14, with the first to be delivered in 2015. Decision time on the next tranche of 58 will come in 2012-13.
The JSF has faced steady criticism that it will be late and too expensive and won’t deliver the promised level of capability.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith said he and Mr MacKay had agreed to conduct a regular strategic dialogue on shared procurement, acquisition, capability issues.
He said he was very concerned that delay in JSF meant it was rubbing up against the Australian schedule for retiring older F/A-18 Hornets around the end of the decade.
“I have always been of the view that this project will get up because the US is absolutely committed to the capability,” he said. “But the risk for Australia and other partners like Canada is on the delivery side, on the schedule side and also on the cost side.”
Mr Smith said an exhaustive risk assessment would be conducted next year. “If I am concerned or worried or not dissuaded there won’t be a gap in terms of delivery of the JSF, then an obvious option for us is more Super Hornets,” he said. “The last things I will allow to occur with our procurement of the JSF is a gap in capability.”