Joint Strike Fighter: Purchase of 58 extra aircraft 'not new spending', Tony Abbott says
Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the multi-billion-dollar program to purchase new jet fighters for the Defence Force does not involve any "new spending" by taxpayers.
The Government has given the go ahead for the purchase of 58 more F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) at a cost of $12.4 billion - making it the nation's most expensive Defence asset.
Asked if he was worried taxpayers would question the cost of the program at a time his Government is warning of wide-ranging cuts, Mr Abbott responded: "I want to stress that this is money that has been put aside by Government over the past decade or so to ensure that this purchase can responsibly be made."
"This is not new spending today. In the context of a tough budget, this is spending money that we need to spend that has been sensibly put aside in the past to ensure that our nation's defences remain strong."
The extra aircraft will bring Australia's total Joint Strike Fighter force to 72 aircraft, with the first of them to enter service in 2020.
The Prime Minister said the Government was "not going to sacrifice the defence of our nation".
How the F-35s compare
"In the end, Government has no higher priority than the defence of the nation, and an effective Defence Force for a country such as Australia requires modern and capable joint strike aircraft such as these. It requires a small but powerful and flexible army and it also requires a strong and effective navy, including a substantial submarine force," he said.
The Government says it will also consider the option of buying another squadron of the next-generation fighter jets to eventually replace the RAAF'S F/A-18 Super Hornets.
As part of the announcement, more than $1.6 billion will be spent on new facilities at air bases in Williamtown in New South Wales and Tindal in the Northern Territory.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has backed the purchase of extra aircraft.
"It was Labor who believed that the Joint Strike Fighter was an appropriate addition to our air power," he told Radio National.
"There had been some problems in terms of aspects of the aircraft but it appears that they have been ironed out."
Joint Strike Fighter delays, blow-outs, reliability issues
The F-35 has been billed as the smartest fighter jet on the planet, designed to strike enemies in the air and on the ground without being detected by radar.
But the plane's development has been beset by delays and cost overruns.
The Government says it has the option to bow out of the program if the price blows out but Mr Abbott said that appears unlikely.
"We are expecting to pay about $90 million per aircraft. We think that as time goes on, the cost per aircraft will actually reduce," he said.
Defence Minister David Johnston added "the curve on costs is headed in the right direction".
"We are purchasing each year, there is flexibility in that purchasing regime for us to defer, for to us be unhappy as a customer, we've built that flexibility in," he said.
The head of the JSF program, US Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, visited Australia earlier this year and declared the reliability and maintainability of the aircraft was not yet "good enough".
In late March the US House Armed Services Committee was told the planes were not affordable to use at the moment.
The committee heard software problems could delay the fighter's production, and foreign buyer delays could see countries like Australia paying millions of dollars more per aircraft.
Liberal backbencher Dennis Jensen, who has repeatedly criticised the JSF, has questioned the timing of the purchase.
"The reality is that we should have, at the very minimum, waited until the aircraft had passed operational testing evaluation in the United States," he told ABC's The World Today program.
"The simple fact is that the earliest that the Air Force is looking at having an initial operational capability with this aircraft is 2020."