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Jump jets on navy's agenda as Tony Abbott orders air strike rethink

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National security correspondent

View more articles from David Wroe

Tony Abbott with a replica of a Joint Strike Fighter.

Tony Abbott with a replica of a Joint Strike Fighter. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's order to examine turning the navy's amphibious assault ships into aircraft carriers for jump jets will require a major rethink by Defence, top military brass have indicated.

Facing a Senate hearing on Monday, Defence chiefs said little work had so far been done on the possibility of buying a short take-off and vertical landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter - an idea that has seized the interest of the Prime Minister.

Under questioning by Labor defence spokesman Stephen Conroy, defence chiefs confirmed for the first time that Mr Abbott had asked them to look at the merit of buying the F-35B jump jets under the forthcoming Defence White Paper and accompanying Force Structure Review.

A Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II short takeoff, vertical landing stealth fighter.

A Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II short takeoff, vertical landing stealth fighter.

Under the proposal, they would be flown from the navy's two Landing Helicopter Dock amphibious assault ships, which are due to come into service over the next 12 to 18 months.

Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown said the force had not asked for the F-35B but added the idea should be examined along with all other credible options.

"Like all things when you have a new White Paper, you should always examine all sorts of options ... It wasn't something the air force has particularly pushed," he said.

He said significant changes would be needed for the LHD ships to accommodate up to 12 of the fighters.

"One of the big issues with having fixed-wing aeroplanes come back onto a ship is you've actually got to get them back in poor weather, so there would be new radars required on the ship as well as instrument landing systems, so there'd be some extensive modifications around that."

Chief of Navy, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs, said further modifications to the ship would include making the deck heat resistant, and changes to fuel storage and fuel lines, weapons magazines and classified compartments for storage.

"This has been a fairly superficial examination up until now because there hasn't been a serious consideration of this capability going into the ship."

Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, said it was too early even to say how the F-35B would fit into the Australian Defence Force.

Much work was needed to decide even how useful they would be, how much they would cost and what sacrifices would be needed to buy them.

"I think we're in a situation where a new government has come in, there's a White Paper been evolving for a while ... The Prime Minister has ... a view about a capability he ... thinks might be relevant to the ADF. He's asked us to look at that.

"We have a process in place at the moment that will allow us to have a look at that and depending on where we come out on that process, we would then go into all those technical decisions about nature of ship and force structure implications for the ADF."

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