|Patrick Walters | October 24, 2009
Article from: The Australian
KEVIN Rudd is poised to sign off on Australia's biggest military buy -- up to 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for the RAAF.
The sign off is happening as pressures continue to bear down on defence spending in the face of the global financial crisis.
Federal cabinet's national security committee is set to approve the $16 billion F-35 acquisition in late November but the number of aircraft in the RAAF's initial squadron could be cut from 24 to as few as 14.
On present planning the air force will get its first operational squadron by 2018 with two F-35s to be handed to the RAAF for test and evaluation purposes earlier in the decade.
Defence Materiel Minister Greg Combet is convinced that the JSF is the best choice for the RAAF's next generation air combat capability.
Combet, who recently toured the F-35 plant at Fort Worth, Texas, and held high-level talks in Washington, says the Obama administration's clear preference for the JSF, ahead of any other advanced fighter, is an important sign. "My trip to the US reinforced my confidence that this is the right aircraft for the ADF," Combet told The Australian's Defence report this week.
"On all relevant issues -- that is, the capability of the JSF, its cost and the schedule for delivery, and Australian industry participation -- I came away with greater confidence."
Combet says the extent of Washington's commitment to the new fighter is extremely significant for the Rudd government as it seeks to curb spending in the wake of the financial crisis and still find the money to fund the multi-billion dollar weapons systems called for in this year's defence white paper.
"The US is looking to purchase almost 3000 aircraft and it is the largest defence acquisition the Pentagon has undertaken. Tens of billions have already been committed to the program and the US is determined that it will succeed," Combet says. "From the most senior levels in the Pentagon this message was emphasised to me. So that's very important in the government's consideration."
Combet is adamant the government still intends to buy 100 F-35s, or four operational squadrons. But the procurement is likely to come in batches, with the F-18 Super Hornet likely to remain in service at least until 2025 to accommodate a later delivery schedule for the F-35. Combet says no consideration is being given to acquiring a second squadron of Super Hornets to fill any gap in the RAAF's frontline combat force should the JSF be delayed.
As the new minister responsible for the Defence Materiel Organisation and its $100bn capital budget, Combet brings a sharp intellect and acute political instincts to the most complex and trouble-prone areas of government procurement.
Four months into the job he is coming to grips with a wide range of equipment challenges, ranging from the troubled performance of the $4bn Project Wedgetail airborne early warning system to hard thinking about an acquisition strategy for Australia's next generation submarine.
While the prime contractor, Boeing, is due to deliver the first two Wedgetails next month (more than three years behind schedule), on the Australian side there are still serious concerns about the aircraft's radar performance.
"The meetings I had in the US confirmed that this radar has great potential. We have still got a way to go with this program. All of the intensive effort over the last 12-18 months means that we are now seeing a significant improvement in this program."
Combet's message to Boeing and sub-contractor and radar supplier Northrop Grumman is that the Australian government still wants to see the radar and the aircraft perform to contract specification.
"We are urging them to commit the resources to bring that about. It is still short of where we expected the capability to be in terms of the radar performance. There's a bit of work to go."
The RAN's present and future submarine requirements are a huge concern for Combet, with the operational capability of the Collins boats still vitally affected by crew shortages and a range of mechanical problems. The range of maintenance issues affecting the Collins class are of such a magnitude that it is officially a "project of concern" for the DMO.
At present the RAN is getting marginally less than two Collins boats available for full operational service, a shortfall Combet is determined to rectify. At the same time he is deeply involved in discussions about the design and build options for the planned 12 next-generation boats, which would enter service from the mid-2020's.
Combet intends to spend much of his time in the run-up to the next election focusing on this critical area of maritime capability, including taking a close look at the present and future role of government-owned submarine builder ASC. ASC is due to get a new chief executive by early next year who will be expected to manage t