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04:57, 29 May 2017 Monday
Update: 15:30, 25 February 2013 Monday

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New troubles for Pentagon’s F-35 fighter
New troubles for Pentagon’s F-35 fighter

Grounding, budget woes cloud F-35 warplane sales push in Australia, Canberra could buy far fewer F-35s than initially planned

World Bulletin/News Desk

This year's second grounding of Lockheed Martin Corp's F-35 warplane, plus looming U.S. defence cuts, will complicate a push this week by Lockheed and U.S. officials to convince Australian lawmakers and generals to stick to a plan to buy 100 of the jets.

Australia, a close American ally, is considering doubling its fleet of 24 Boeing Co F/A-18 Super Hornets amid delays and setbacks in Lockheed's $396 billion F-35 project.

That means Canberra could buy far fewer F-35s than initially planned, at a time when Canada is also rethinking its plans to make the F-35 - also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) - its future frontline warplane.

U.S. Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon program chief for the F-35, said the grounding over a crack found in a test aircraft engine would not delay delivery of the most expensive combat aircraft in history.

"It is not unusual in development programs for these things to happen," Bogdan told reporters at an airshow in the Australian city of Melbourne, where the futuristic jet will draw attention from potential customers in Asia.

"Don't be shocked in the future if we find other things wrong with the airplane that will result in us doing the same thing."

All flights by the 51 F-35 fighter planes were suspended on Friday after a routine inspection revealed a crack on a turbine blade in the jet engine of a test aircraft in California.

SUPER HORNETS COULD TAKE F-35 ORDERS

Australia will decide at the end of this year on the timing of an order for an initial 12 F-35s while it considers options to replace 71 early model F/A-18 fighter jets and a recently retired fleet of 24 Vietnam-era F-111 supersonic bombers.

Many defence insiders expect plans for a fleet of F-35s to be revised to feature 48 Super Hornets - 12 equipped as EA-18G Growlers with radar-jamming electronic weapons - and as few as 50 Joint Strike Fighters.

A source familiar with the matter said Canberra's decision on the Super Hornets could come within the next three to six weeks.

"The Super Hornets will eat into F-35 orders," said Sam Roggeveen, a former Australian government intelligence and arms analyst, now with the Lowy Institute security think tank.

"It's not too crude to say it will be a one for one replacement, because so far that's the kind of basis that defence has so far been working on anyway."

Budget cuts have already forced Italy to scale back its F-35 orders, and Turkey has delayed its purchases by two years. Orders from Japan and Israel have buoyed the project, and additional Israeli orders are expected in 2013.

Singapore has also taken a more active interest in the radar-evading jet, and South Korea is expected to announce a winner in its fighter contest late this year.

Australia and other countries are watching orders and problems with the jet with concern, since every reduction drives up the price of the remaining fighters to be built.

"It is a nuisance," said a spokesman for the Dutch defence ministry, which has already paid for two test planes but will determine the size of its total F-35 order later this year.

Australian officials know the stakes are high.

"We're only a small player, but other countries are watching," said a source at Australia's Defence Materiel Organisation, part of the defence department, who was not authorised to speak publicly.

Bogdan approved the grounding just before leaving Washington to join Lockheed executives at the Avalon air show in Melbourne.

"I believe by the end of this week we would know what the root cause of that crack was. If it's as simple as a foreign object damage problem, or a manufacturing quality problem, I could foresee the airplanes being back in the air in the next week or two," he said.

Lockheed executives have been trying to reassure Canberra. They insist that problems with software and design, including imaging and night vision functions of the pilot's helmet, are being resolved, and testing is ahead of schedule.

One U.S. defence official, who was not authorised to speak publicly, said the technical problems bedevilling the new fighter were less troubling than Washington's budget woes.

Sweeping budget cuts due to take effect in the United States on March 1 could cut funding for the Pentagon's biggest weapons program and delay work on seven jets this year alone.

"What the foreign partners worry about is the stability of the program writ large," said the official. "We're solving the technical challenges. There are no showstoppers there, although they're not cheap."

U.S. military budgets are slated to be cut by nearly $500 billion over the next decade, an amount which could double unless Congress acts in the next week to avert spending reductions known as "sequestration".

After the latest F-35 grounding, a former Australian defence minister in the Labor government, Joel Fitzgibbon, criticised the country's military commanders for their "obsession" with the troubled F-35.

"I think there is an almost obsession with the JSF within the uniformed ranks. This is their brand new toy," Fitzgibbon, who still holds a senior government role, told local media.

Bogdan said he was not aware of a single partner country in the aircraft wavering in their commitment to the fighter.

"When they buy their airplanes is a different story and I won't comment on any of the partners' notions of when they do that," he said.

Lockheed is building three different models of the F-35 for the U.S. military and eight countries that helped pay for its development: Britain, Canada, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia and Norway.



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Libya extremist group Ansar al-Sharia announces dissolution
Libya extremist group Ansar al-Sharia announces dissolution

The Libyan jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is linked to Al-Qaeda and deemed a terrorist organisation by the UN and United States, announced its "dissolution" in a communique published online on Saturday. Washington accuses the group of being behind the September 11, 2012 attack on the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi in which ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Ansar al-Sharia is one of the jihadist groups that sprung up in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, in the chaos following the death of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011. They overran the city in 2014. East Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar earlier this month launched an offensive to oust jihadist fighters from their two remaining strongholds in Benghazi. In its communique Ansar al-Sharia said it had been "weakened" by the fighting. The group lost its leader, Mohammed Azahawi, in clashes with Haftar's forces in Benghazi at the end of 2014. Most of its members then defected to the so-called Islamic State group. Ansar al-Sharia later joined the Revolutionary Shura Council of Benghazi, a local alliance of Islamist militias. At its zenith, Ansar al-Sharia was present in Benghazi and Derna in eastern Syria, with offshoots in Sirte and Sabratha, western Libya. The organisation took over barracks and other sites abandoned by the ousted Kadhafi forces and transformed them into training grounds for hundreds of jihadists seeking to head to Iraq or Syria.