Australian defence chiefs support US F-35 project

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CANBERRA, Mar 31 (Reuters) Australian defence chiefs today expressed strong support for the US Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme saying the new plane was the best value for money and would ensure Australian air superiority in the region.

Australia and Britain have expressed concerns about further investment in the project unless the United States agrees on technology transfers, which would allow companies in both countries to win contracts and carry out maintenance work.

The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) plans to buy up to 100 of the new Lockheed-Martin F-35s to replace its ageing F-111 bombers and F/A-18 Hornet fighters, with delivery expected around 2012 to 2014.

Australia has committed 300 million Australian Dollars in the early development of the project and has earmarked 16 billion dollars for planes, its most expensive defence acquisition.

''It is still the best value for money,'' RAAF chief Air Marshal Geoff Shepherd told a parliamentary hearing today.

''We are testing and modelling every aspect of this programme to make sure the JSF meets our needs. We are a smart and informed customer,'' Shepherd said. ''We are convinced it is the best aircraft to do all the jobs that Australia needs.'' The F-35, the Pentagon's costliest weapons project at 256 billion dollars is a radar-evading stealth fighter being developed with co-financing from eight other countries -- Australia, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Denmark and Norway.

Shepherd played down suggestions that delays and rising costs of the F-35s could cause problems for Australia's defence capability beyond 2012, saying Australia was confident the project would be delivered on time and on budget.

He said Australia could extend the life of its F/A-18s if the Joint Strike Fighter project ran into delays.

''But I stress to date, we aren't seeing any indiction that there will be any (time) slippage at all,'' he said.

Australia will decide in late 2006 whether to continue to the next phase of development, and has until late 2008 to make a final decision to purchase the F-35s.

This week, Australia's Ambassador in Washington Dennis Richardson was quoted as saying Australia would be nervous about any delays and cost blowouts for the F-35.

''One is that the JSF be delivered on time, because if it isn't, it's going to present us with a bad capability gap. The other thing that's important to us is the unit cost,'' Australian Associated Press quoted Richardson as telling a conference on US military sales.

''We watch very closely the annual budget to-ing and fro-ing in the US Congress and we get very nervous when there's any suggestion of reduction in allocations.'' REUTERS PV SND1106

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