Jul 7 2015 by John Kerin
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's proposal to put F-35 fighter jets on the Navy's two 27,000-tonne troop transport assault ships has been quietly dropped ahead of the government's defence white paper after it was found the ships would require extensive reworking and the project was too costly.
Mr Abbott asked defence planners in May last year to examine the possibility of putting up to 12 of the short-take-off and vertical-landing F-35 Bs on to the two ships – the largest in the Navy – which carry helicopters and are likely to be primarily used to transport troops and equipment to war or disaster zones.
The first of the assault ships was completed last year and commissioned into the Navy in November as HMAS Canberra.
But defence officials conceded to a Senate estimates committee late last year that the jump-jet proposal would involve extensive modifications to the ships, including new radar systems, instrument landing systems, heat-resistant decking, restructuring of fuel storage and fuel lines, and storage hangars.
Defence sources have told The Australian Financial Review that the proposal was "still in the white paper mix" up until some weeks ago.
But one source close to the white paper was emphatic on Tuesday that "it will now not make the cut".
"There were just too many technical difficulties involved in modifying a ship which takes helicopters to take fighter jets and it is also very expensive," the source said. "You can safely say it has been dropped."
'BETTER WAYS TO SPEND THE MONEY'
The white paper, which lays down the Abbott government's 20-year vision for defence – including a $275 billion-plus weapons wishlist – is expected to be released next month.
The Prime Minister's proposal would have brought Australia into line with the United States, Britain and a number of other nations that plan to operate F-35s from their assault ships.
The F-35B version of the joint strike fighter is being built for the US Marines and British forces to replace their British-built Harrier jump jets.
The Spanish Navy's version of the troop transport assault ship, which utilises the same underlying design as the Royal Australian Navy's troop assault ship, is equipped to carry Harrier jump jets.
Mr Abbott announced in April last year that Australia would buy an additional 58 conventional take-off and landing versions for the Royal Australian Air Force at a cost of $12 .4 billion, bringing the number of orders to 72.
But the RAAF version was not suitable for the troop transport assault ships, which would have required the purchase of extra fighters to equip the ships. And the radar-evading stealth fighter program has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, as well as software issues with the F-35B – the worst-afflicted version of the aircraft.
In an independent report on the jump jet proposal, defence think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute warned that the purchase of aircraft and ship modifications would involve "multibillions of dollars".
Analysts Richard Brabin-Smith and Dr Benjamin Schreer also warned in the report that the cost was unjustified and could also "raise unrealistic expectations" that Australia was adopting a "much more muscular strategic posture" in the region.
"The cost-benefit analysis is not in favour of developing [the assault ship-jump jet proposal]," the paper said.
"The scenarios in which the capability would be realistically required and make an important impact are operationally vague at best.
"The 2015 defence white paper should not announce a decision or intention to acquire jump jets for the ADF… there are likely better ways to spend the money."