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Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Page: 1115


Mr WILKIE (Denison) (14:26): My question is to the Minister for Defence. Minister, Australia's plans to purchase as many as 100 Joint Strike Fighters is obviously crucial to our national security. The confirmation this week that the US is postponing the production of 179 airframes apparently puts Australia's program at risk. Minister, what are the facts of the matter and does the government remain prepared to purchase more Super Hornets?

Mr STEPHEN SMITH (PerthMinister for Defence and Deputy Leader of the House) (14:26): I thank the member for his question. I think the member last asked me about this matter in August or September of last year and there have been some developments since then, in December and January, and also the development overnight that the member refers to namely, the presentation to the congress of the President's budget, which includes the United States Department of Defense proposed budget for 2013.

The member refers to our national security interests, and it is absolutely essential that Australia continues to maintain its air combat capability, and that is the absolute focus that I have had in this area. Currently, of course, we have 71 Classic Hornets, we have 24 Super Hornets—12 of which are wired up to potentially receive the electronic warfare capability, the 'Growler'—and we have the proposal to receive Joint Strike Fighters.

Since July of last year, Mr Speaker, I have been saying the absolutely essential decision for this year is a judgment about whether we are at risk of a capability gap. What potentially causes that capability gap is a delay in the production of the Joint Strike Fighter and the ageing of our Classic Hornets, which have served us very well, and continue to service us well, but are currently the subject of a deep maintenance program. So that is the risk to our capability—that the Joint Strike Fighter is delivered later than was originally expected or anticipated. I have indicated that we will do an exhaustive review of that this year and make a judgment about any gap in capability this year.

I have said that the Super Hornet is an obvious option so far as any filling of a gap in capability is concerned. We have made no decision about that, but the fact that we have 24 Super Hornets and the fact that 12 are wired for 'Growler' is a relevant, material consideration.

What we saw in the course of December and of January this year was variously Secretary Panetta, Deputy Secretary Carter, Under Secretary Kendall, the Director of the Joint Strike Fighter Program, Admiral Venlet, and the Chief of the US Air Force, Norton Schwartz, indicate that we have to look to potential delay, that there was, as Admiral Venlet had said, a miscalculation about concurrency—which is, namely, seeking to produce while development issues are still in hand, and what we have seen overnight is confirmation of that—179 fewer planes to be purchased by the United States, or produced by the program, over the 2013-2017 period. I have said we are committed to receiving two for test and trial purposes in the United States in 2014. That is still on-track. We have publicly said we will take another 12. The schedule for that is now under consideration, just as the United States's schedule is under consideration. What we will not allow is a gap in our capability, and the decision about gap in capability will be made in the course of this year. We will not leave it to the last minute, and Super Hornets fall directly into consideration in that respect.

The SPEAKER: I extended some indulgence to the minister because of the importance of the question.