CANBERRA, -- The controversial F-35A Lightning Joint Strike Fighter is expensive and running late but there's no real alternative available to meet the RAAF's needs for an advanced combat aircraft, a Senate committee says.
However, it recommends that Defence adopt a "hedging strategy" to be implemented by 2019 at the latest in case further JSF delays raise the risk of a capability gap between the retirement of older RAAF aircraft and entry to service of the JSF.
In a report tabled in the Senate on Thursday, the foreign affairs, defence and trade committee said it received evidence criticising the JSF, with some calling for its procurement to be cancelled.
Committee chairman Senator Alex Gallacher said the members were not convinced any of the suggested JSF alternatives were capable of meeting Australia's needs.
They included the Saab Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale.
Many suggested the US F-22 Raptor but the committee said the F-22 production line was closed and unlikely to reopen. And even if it did, US law prohibited foreign sales.
"Notwithstanding the criticisms, the committee is satisfied that the F-35A is the only aircraft able to meet Australia's strategic needs for the foreseeable future, and that sufficient progress is being made in the test and evaluation program to address performance issues of concern," Senator Gallacher told the Senate.
However, in light of problems with the JSF program, the committee said it retained a healthy scepticism of Defence's assurances on the JSF's cost, delivery schedule and capability.
Australia plans to buy 72 of the advanced F-35A Lightning aircraft and perhaps as many as 100 to form the core of the RAAF's air combat capability out to mid-century.
The RAAF plans to have the first two squadrons operational by 2020.
By that time, the oldest RAAF F/A-18 Hornets will be 35 years old and the rest not much younger, with limited scope to extend their life in the event of JSF delays.
RAAF chief Air Marshal Leo Davies told the committee he was confident there would be no capability gap.
It wasn't convinced and recommended Defence develop a hedging strategy to address the risk of a capability gap.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute told the committee the most sensible hedge would be procuring additional F/A-18F Super Hornets.
The the first Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning jet arrived at Luke Air Force Base.