Former prime minister Tony Abbott poses in the cockpit of a replica of the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter at Canberra’s Fairbairn Airbase in April 2014. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen An F-35 Lightning II makes a test flight over Fort Worth, Texas, in 2008. The Canadian flag can be seen next to Australia’s, as both countries were part of the manufacturing consortium. Photo: Bloomberg
Australia could pay up to $100 million more for its new fleet of stealth fighters should Canada dump plans to buy F-35, according to a US military estimate.
US Air Force Lieutenant-General Chris Bogdan told a congressional hearing in Washington on Wednesday that a decision by Canada or any country to cancel orders would add about $US1 million ($1.38 million) to the cost of each fighter.
The ongoing costs for development of the fighter would also increase.
The extra outlay would be another blow to the troubled F-35 program, which over its nearly two-decade history has been beset by cost overruns and technical difficulties.
Canada’s prime minister-elect Justin Trudeau has pledged to withdraw from the nine-nation deal including Australia and the US to share the costs of developing the fighter jet.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott had committed Australia to buying a total fleet of 72 Joint Strike Fighters, as the F-35 is known.
Defence officials told a senate inquiry in Canberra this week the budget for the F-35 was $17 billion – but the purchase and running costs has been put at as high as $24 billion.
Canada’s outgoing Conservative government had originally planned to buy at least 65 of the jets, but Mr Trudeau has promised to seek a cheaper option.
Norway, the Netherlands, Japan and Israel are among the partners in the F-35 program.
General Bogdan, the head of the F-35 program, said he was speaking in general terms about the cost implications and it was not appropriate to comment on Mr Trudeau’s election.
A spokesman for Lockheed Martin, the defence company developing the fighter, said Canada was a “valued partner” and there not been any formal notification from the government about their status in the F-35 program.
Doubts around the F-35 have centred on its ability to measure up to the latest Chinese and Russian jets, along with claims Chinese hackers stole sensitive design plans.
Australia has already purchased two F-35s at more than $126 million each and intends to gradually increase the total number to 72 jets by 2023.
Should $US1 million be added to the price tag for the next 70, the cost in today’s exchange rate would be an additional $97 million.
Officials told a Canberra Senate hearing on Wednesday evening – ahead of General Bogdan’s comments – that the Canadian decision was unlikely to have cost implications for Australia.
RAAF Air Vice-Marshal Chris Deeble also said Australia expected the cost for each aircraft to drop to around $90 million when the final nine jets were purchased in 2023.
He said the stealth jets were in a testing process.
“But it is on track. This is a very complex program, however, and there will always be issues that you will strike,” Air Vice-Marshal Deeble said.
The first F-35s are expected to enter service in 2020.
Further comment is being sought from the Defence department.
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