DEVELOPMENT of the revolutionary Joint Strike Fighter, intended to provide Australia's air defence through this century, is running well behind schedule and the RAAF may need to buy 18 more Super Hornets for $1.5 billion to fill the gap.
Australian defence officials head for the US this week for an update from Lockheed Martin Corporation, which is developing the stealthy, multi-role JSF, now named the F-35 Lightning II.
The Australian understands they will raise serious concerns about delays in the project and the possibility of an alarming gap in Australia's air defences from 2020 onwards.
A recent report by the US Government Accountability Office indicates the program, already behind schedule and over budget, is likely to experience additional production and cost pressures.
Australia plans to buy up to 100 F-35s for an estimated $16bn and has so far ordered 14, with the RAAF's first squadron supposed to be operating by 2018.
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However, the US air force is buying the same variant of the JSF as the RAAF and has pushed back the dates by which it expects to have its first squadrons operational from mid-2016 to 2017 -- and possibly now to mid-2018.
Officials from Lockheed Martin have insisted the problems in the US will not mean any delays in delivering Australia's first 14 aircraft.
But there is growing concern in Canberra that the US delays will mean the RAAF's first squadron may not be ready until about 2020 and possibly later.
Alarm bells are ringing because it's likely that by 2020 the last 30 or so of the RAAF's older "classic" Hornets will have reached the end of their useful lives, even with extensive refurbishment.
The Howard government bought 24 Super Hornets for $6bn in 2007 to fill an earlier strategic gap left when the RAAF's F-111 bombers were withdrawn ahead of time because of concerns about fatigue.
Defence officials are preparing for the government a range of options to fill this looming gap in air defences with the most likely being the purchase of a further 18 Super Hornets for about $800 million each.
That would make economic sense, because the $6bn purchase price for the first 24 Super Hornets included the infrastructure to support them and that can be used for the additional aircraft.
Another option might be further refurbishments of the classic Hornets.
Officials from the Defence Materiel Organisation will join delegations from all of the nations involved in the JSF project for a comprehensive briefing on progress this week.
There have been three key issues with the JSF as its development progressed -- whether the F-35 will do all that's promised of it, whether it will be delivered on time and whether it will cost more than anticipated.
The Australian has been told development of the aircraft, which is packed with sophisticated radars and other electronic equipment, is progressing well and is likely to meet or exceed the expectations of the nine nations involved in its development.
But there is a growing acceptance in the RAAF that the aircraft will be late and a steady increase in costs is eating up the considerable margin built into the contract by Australia's Defence Department.
The original plan was for Lockheed to build 2443 JSFs for various arms of the American forces with about 500 others going to allies including Australia, Israel and Canada.
A long-time strong supporter of Australia's role in the JSF project, former RAAF air marshal Errol McCormack has warned that the likely delays mean the Gillard government must get a plan in place to ensure Australia's air defences are effective once the classic Hornets are retired.
Air Marshal McCormack, who now runs a normally strongly pro-JSF group of experienced military flyers known as the Williams Foundation, said in its latest bulletin the government should remember the RAAF's experience with the F-111.
The first Australian F-111s were to be delivered in 1968.
"Even though development and production slipped because of technical issues, Australia adhered to the delivery date rather than the production slot," Air Marshal McCormack said. As a result, in 1968 Australia took notional delivery of underdeveloped aircraft with technical difficulties.