AUSTRALIA'S biggest-ever defence project, the $16 billion Joint Strike Fighter, has potential flaws that could reduce the world's newest warplane to just an "average aircraft", according to internal Defence Department documents.
The documents reveal the JSF is beset with serious software problems and a cockpit display system so bad it had to be almost completely redesigned.
Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, a staunch defender of the troubled JSF program, will travel to the US at the weekend for talks with the plane's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.
But despite the latest setbacks with the project, Dr Nelson still supports plans to spend $16billion to buy up to 100 of the yet-to-be-built JSFs to replace the ageing F-111 strike bomber and F/A-18 fighter jets from 2012.
Dr Nelson described the JSF program as not only the most expensive, but also the most challenging, defence project in Australian history.
"We are very committed to the JSF as it will deliver all the capabilities we need and want," he said.
Dr Nelson agreed that the transfer of information from the US to the project partners, such as details of the plane's stealth technology, was a significant issue and he vowed to walk away from the project unless guarantees were given.
"I will be meeting with US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld next week and this issue will be discussed," he said.
Despite the risks raised in the Defence Science and Technology Organisation report, he said, he remained confident the JSF was the best choice for the Royal Australian Air Force.
The $256 billion US-led JSF construction program has been dogged with cost blowouts and production delays, raising doubts about the value of the deal and the ability of Lockheed Martin to deliver the new fighter on time.
Now, Australian scientists from the DSTO have identified "major risks" to the plane's performance in its complex software, advanced cockpit displays and central computer system. A DSTO report from December, obtained under Freedom of Information laws, warns that a "technical risk assessment" by DSTO found "major risks" inherent in the aircraft's cockpit display system.
"Late or substandard software development within the display system results in poor mission system integration," DSTO says.
"Realisation of this risk may result in loss of functionality, poor system reliability, or poor man-machine interface which reduces the pilot's ability to perform."
It describes the integration of technology for the plane's cockpit as being only "at the laboratory breadboard stage".
Sources told The Weekend Australian last night that the cockpit problems were so severe the system had been completely redesigned.
Another major problem identified by Defence scientists is the central computer system - the same issue that led to the Collins-class submarines initially being labelled as "dud subs".
DSTO complains of difficulty assessing the scale of the JSF's software problems because of a lack of information from the US.
"Software is a key enabler ofthe integrated mission systems, which transform a kinematically average aircraft into a highly capable weapon system," DSTO says.
"The lack of technical information prevents DSTO from conducting a thorough analysis of the integrated performance of the (cental computer system).
"The lack of information is due to a number of factors including the novel acquisition approach, US International Trade in Arms Regulations, and what would appear to be proprietary restrictions."
The first JSF test plane was built early this year and will have its first flight later in the year. But the partnership between the US and its allies over the plane has been fraught.
Australia and Britain - which also plans to buy the plane - have complained to the US about Washington's reluctance to share the JSF's stealth technology, warning they would pull out of the deal if that technology were not made available.
Britain has since signed a deal with Washington to share the stealth technology, but Australia has yet to do so.
Opposition defence spokesman Robert McClelland warned yesterday that the JSF's problems, and possible delays in its delivery, could leave Australia with a dangerous gap in air capability. "Billion-dollar bungles like the Government's mismanagement of the Super Seasprite helicopter project could really pale in comparison to this unprecedented $16 billion project - big enough to account for almost the entire annual Defence budget," Mr McClelland said. "If Labor win Government we will closely examine the option of acquiring F-22 Raptors, at least in the initial procurement phase, to ensure Australia does not forfeit regional air superiority between retirement of the F-111s in 2012 and delivery of replacement JSFs in 2015 at the earliest and more likely 2017." The Howard Government has paid $155 million to join in the design of the JSF, with a final decision on the purchase of the plane due in 2008. Cost overruns have lifted the average fly-away cost of the plane from $45 million to more than $60 million per plane.