Deep cuts to defence spending announced this week by Britain may mean Australia’s plans to spend billions of dollars on high-tech fighter aircraft will be even more expensive.
The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, said this week that the austerity cuts would include slashing the number of Joint Strike Fighters to be bought from the US. He did not specify how many of the fighters would be cut from the original commitment of 138, but experts have predicted Britain could end up buying as few as 40, or even 12.
Mr Cameron said the British government had also scrapped plans to split its purchase between the vertical take-off and landing and conventional models of the fighters, and would instead concentrate on the latter variant, which he said was ”more capable, less expensive and longer-range”.
Advertisement: Story continues below Australia has said it will buy up to 100 of the conventional aircraft carrier variant at a cost of $16 billion. The first batch of 14 fighters is due for delivery by the end of 2016, but the project has been bedevilled by cost blowouts and schedule overruns.
Andrew Davies, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the British cuts were not a disaster for the Australian government, but they would certainly cause ”some consternation”.
”It would certainly have less impact on us than if someone had cancelled the conventional take-off and landing version. Having said that, it’s not great news, as the research and development costs have to be amortised over a smaller fleet.
”I think it would cause some consternation that an important customer like [Britain], that put in £2 billion [$3.2 billion] up front, is now stepping back.
”The other thing to bear in mind is that [Britain] is broke, so the extent to which its lack of confidence in the aircraft is tempered by the huge budget cuts, and this might have been an easy target because it’s a big chunk of money on something that hasn’t actually been ordered yet.”
Peter Goon, a former Royal Australian Air Force squadron commander and vociferous critic of the Joint Strike Fighter, told the Herald yesterday that the British decision might be based as much on the realisation that the fighter design was not viable.
”The cost issue and the world economic crisis has forced them to take a closer look, and it scared the shit out of them,” he said. ”Saying they want to go with the [conventional] variant is face-saving on behalf of the Yanks, so [Britain] is not seen as having pulled out of the program totally, because [it] will be doing hard negotiations with the US government and the State Department to try and get some return on the money they’ve invested.”
The British decision is merely the latest in a string of problems for the fighter program.
In February the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, sacked the then head of the program, stated that he was withholding fees of over $600 million from the manufacturer Lockheed Martin and spoke of the fighter’s ”troubling performance record”.
The US Government Accountability Office said in September the US military lacked an overarching strategy to ensure it had the right mix of old and new fighters, unmanned aircraft, bombers, missiles and other weapons systems to cover its tactical needs.
It warned that: ”The [JSF] program continues to face significant risks that will likely add to costs and further delay aircraft deliveries … some service officials question whether the US Air Force will be able to afford the current planned procurement of 80 [JSFs] per year.”