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Aussies losing patience on F-35?

Another defense blog might lead off with a wisecrack about how Australian support for the F-35 Lightning II may have boomeranged -- but that's not our style here at Buzz. Instead we'll play it straight: Australian defence minister Stephen Smith, in town for meetings with Secretary Panetta, is displeased with the state of the F-35 program, and implied the Aussies may not go beyond their initial commitment to buy 14 jets, well short of their onetime goal of 100.

Here's how Australia's ABC News laid out the story:

Defence Minister Stephen Smith has refused to guarantee Australia will buy 100 US-built F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, saying the project is getting close to the cost and delay overruns Defence built into the order ...

Speaking in the United States before a meeting with defence secretary Leon Panetta, Mr Smith says Australia has made it clear the order, at present, is for only 14.

"We are also in the market for joint strike fighters beyond 14, but we haven't placed a firm order or commitment for any more than 14," Mr Smith told ABC News Breakfast. He said Australia built into the project "capacity for slippage" in terms of cost and delay but "we are starting to rub up against that". "We are very conscious there have been both cost and schedule delays, and that will form a part of my conversations with not just secretary of defence [Leon] Panetta but also with other officials."

So Smith and Australia's DoD want to keep their options open -- they could continue down the F-35 path, if the program shapes up, but this also could represent an opening for Boeing. It has already sold the Aussies some F/A-18F Super Hornets as a stopgap for F-35s, and this appears to again confirm the possibility it could sell them more.

There's another interesting detail in this ABC News story. Back in February, there was some discussion that the Aussies might want to buy Virginia-class attack submarines to replace their existing fleet of diesel-electric boats, an idea that excited a lot of speculation in Washington: It would be a windfall for General Dynamics and U.S. Foreign Military Sales, both because of the initial order and also the need for upgraded, nuclear-capable shipyard facilities Down Under. What's more, a nuke-capable yard in Australia would be really convenient for American nuclear submarines operating in the Western Pacific.

Well -- it's not happening. Continued ABC News:

Mr Smith says he will also discuss plans for Australia's proposed 12 submarine fleet to replace the unreliable Collins class vessels. He said the US could help with propulsion, weapons and communications systems but ruled out buying nuclear-powered submarines.

"Australia's conventional submarine fleet will compliment America's nuclear submarine fleet, and one thing I have ruled out, we are not contemplating nuclear-powered submarines," he said."There is a range of government and industry expertise that we think can be of assistance."

He said the Government is committed to assembling 12 submarines in South Australia - the largest defence project ever in Australia.

 

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