Fighter jet program on hold as fault grounds test flights
Setbacks ... Lockheed Martin's Joint Strike Fighter is struggling to get off the ground.
AUSTRALIA'S $16 billion program to buy the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has suffered another blow, with the US suspending all test flights after a crack was found on a turbine blade of a test plane during a routine inspection.
This is the latest in a series of setbacks for the fighter jet manufactured by Lockheed Martin, which Australia committed to in 2002 with an order for 100 at a cost of $40 million a jet. Since then the price has more than trebled. The Pentagon announced the grounding in a statement, calling it a ''precautionary measure'' and saying it would remain in place until an investigation was complete.
The jet is at present unable to fly in lightning storms, has trouble turning to avoid enemy fighters and missiles and is well behind on its original timetable.
The first jet intended for Australia is in production, but the Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, is considering buying 24 new FA-18 Super Hornet fighter-bombers to bolster Australian air defences if the Lockheed Martin JSF is further delayed.
The JSF is at least five years late, with the first planes slated for arrival in Australia in 2014. But a leaked draft of the 2013 Defence white paper predicts that only two of the jets will be here by 2020.
Late last year Canada began searching for new options to purchase instead of the jet, after discovering the price tag would be far more than originally planned. Canada's decision to look elsewhere will probably push the price of the jets up further.
The former defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon told Fairfax Media last week that senior department officials had pushed the JSF at the expense of other options. ''When I was trying to put some strategic competition into the debate by inquiring about access to the F-22 Raptor, and aircraft like the Eurofighter, I was … pilloried by those in uniform. Interference was run,'' he said.
A spokeswoman for the Defence Department said if the present engine fault has any longer-term implications, then it will be considered along with all other aspects of the program when the government considers the air combat options.
''As the Minister for Defence has stated, Australia's air combat capability is a vital part of Australia's national security,'' she said.