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Australia to Give to U.S. Fighters

June 27, 2002

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) _ Australia will contribute $150 million to the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter program, becoming the latest American ally to participate in the $200 billion project, the government said Thursday.

Australia joins six NATO countries that have agreed to chip in $3.1 billion to develop the supersonic fighter jet. Britain is the largest NATO participant, contributing about $2 billion while planning to buy about 150 of the planes.

Defense Minister Robert Hill said Australia would contribute $150 million over 10 years.

Australia has not yet committed to buying the new fighter, but Hill said the Australian air force needs to replace its aging fleet of F/A-18 Hornet and F-111 fighter jets starting in 2012.

Hill said although the government did not need to make a decision to buy any of the planes until 2006, he and his air force chief believe the U.S. fighter would be ``a generation ahead″ of alternatives such as the Eurofighter.

The first 22 of the new supersonic fighters are scheduled to be built in 2008, and participants get first crack at buying them.

Australian participation also gives local industries a chance to share in a large, high-tech project.

Air Marshall Angus Houston said if Canberra bought the supersonic fighters _ called the F-35 _ they would be employed in defending the sea approaches to northern Australia.

``This (plane) will give us the ability to dominate that battle space,″ Houston said.

The F-35 combines high-tech capabilities, like radar-evading stealth technology, at a relatively low cost. Lead contractor Lockheed Martin estimates each plane will cost between $40 million and $50 million, depending on whether it is built for conventional bases, aircraft carriers or short takeoffs and vertical landings.

The Pentagon has said it plans to buy about 3,000 of the planes, but officials also have said that number could be reduced as financial and military requirements change.

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