The West

Jump jets on Defence radar
Up and away: A US Marine Corps F-35B. Picture: Lockheed Martin

Australia could buy "jump-jet" Joint Strike Fighters to base aboard new landing ships, giving the nation its first aircraft carrier since the early 1980s.

Defence Minister David Johnston told The Weekend West _the Government was considering buying the "B" model of the F-35 - a specialised variant of the stealth jet being built to operate from aircraft carriers.

Last month, Australia committed to buying 72 of the conventional model F-35s from US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin at a cost of almost $20 billion.

But the Government has left the door open to buying more F-35s and the minister says the F-35B will be considered.

"Now that aircraft is more expensive, does not have the range but it's an option that has been considered from day one," Senator Johnston said.

The F-35B has a shortened take-off distance and can land vertically, just like the legendary Harrier jump jet.

The British Navy and the US Marines are buying the F-35B to station aboard aircraft carriers.

Australia is soon to bring into service two large ships called landing helicopter docks. Though they resemble small aircraft carriers, the Government has maintained until now they would be used only to deploy helicopters and troops.

Senator Johnston said stationing the F-35 aboard an LHD would be costly and technically challenging, but it could be done.

"The deck strength is there for such an aircraft," he said.

The Hawke government mothballed Australia's last aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, in 1982.

Commissioning an aircraft carrier is considered a significant strategic statement of military might by a country.

China recently launched its first aircraft carrier. The sea trials are being watched closely.

The F-35B has less range than the conventional F-35 owing to the complex systems of jets used to allow it to land vertically.

The B variant has been the most trouble-plagued of the three F-35 models. Testing was stalled this year after cracks were discovered in the aircrafts' bulkheads.

The F-35 will replace Australia's fleet of F/A-18A/B Classic Hornet aircraft, due to be withdrawn in 2022.

The West Australian

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