Plans for new fighter jets on back burner despite Labor’s $50bn boost to defence spending

<span>ADF personnel prepare an F-35A Lightning II for a training exercise in the Northern Territory in May 2021. Plans to expand the RAAF’s fleet of the fighter jet have been shelved.</span><span>Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AAP</span>
ADF personnel prepare an F-35A Lightning II for a training exercise in the Northern Territory in May 2021. Plans to expand the RAAF’s fleet of the fighter jet have been shelved.Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AAP

Plans for Australia to acquire new F-35 fighter jets have been put on the back burner as part of a major funding overhaul that the government says will deliver an overall increase in defence spending.

The Albanese government is pouring an extra $50bn into defence spending over the next 10 years and pledging to ensure the military can project power further from Australia’s shores.

While the funding is going up overall, the government says it is freeing up about $73bn over 10 years by cutting, delaying or changing the scope of some defence projects.

This is understood to include a $3bn saving by delaying the possible acquisition of a fourth squadron of F-35 aircraft under the Joint Strike Fighter program.

Australia already has 72 of the F-35 aircraft and it had long been mooted that it would end up with about 100 of them.

But the defence industry minister, Pat Conroy, said the government had decided to keep the existing Super Hornets in service for longer because “they are doing great work” and the F-35 was “even more capable than we initially thought”.

“So we can delay the replacement of the Super Hornet, which frees up funding to invest in more long-range missiles, for example. It is about making it sensible choices as well as hard decisions,” Conroy told ABC TV on Wednesday.

He said the government would “evaluate possible replacements of them a bit further down the path”, hinting that more F-35s were still an option that could be considered in the longer term.

Other savings include $10bn over 10 years from the previously announced decision to scale back the purchase of new infantry fighting vehicles for the Australian army.

The government is also freeing up $4.1bn by not proceeding with the acquisition of two large navy support vessels and $1.4bn by shelving planned upgrades to defence facilities in Canberra.

Even after these cuts are taken into account, however, the government says it has committed an extra $50.3bn for defence over the next 10 years, which includes a net increase of $5.7bn over the immediate four-year budget cycle.

Related: Australia cannot be ‘passive bystanders’ in a war between US and China, Richard Marles says

This immediate funding includes $1bn over the next four years for long-range strike, targeting and autonomous systems. The Aukus nuclear-powered submarines are another key spending area for defence.

The defence minister, Richard Marles, said the national defence strategy published on Wednesday would equip the ADF “to survive in a much less certain world”.

Addressing the National Press Club, Marles said Australia’s national security “actually lies in the heart of our region”, because “the defence of Australia does not mean much without the collective security of the region in which we live”.

He stressed the need for Australia to seek to project military power further from its shores “to contribute to regional security” and to “resist the coercion that would come from the disruption of our sea lines of communication”.

Marles said China’s military buildup was occurring without transparency or reassurance, and intensifying competition between Beijing and Washington was creating an environment “where the risk of miscalculation is more ominous and the consequences more severe”.

Amid longstanding challenges with recruitment and retention of ADF personnel, the new strategy calls for wider eligibility criteria.

“Like the defence forces of our friends and allies, we also need to look at ways in which we can recruit from among certain non-Australian citizens to serve in the ADF,” Marles said.

A second document released on Wednesday, the integrated investment program, lays out spending on defence capabilities including Aukus over the next 10 years.

Australia’s defence spending is on track to increase from 2.1% of Australia’s economic output next financial year to 2.4% by 2033-34.

Marles said while program includes extra funding, it “also required the reprioritisation of $22.5bn over the next four years and $72.8bn over the decade”.

Asked whether the Coalition was pledging to spend at least 2.4% of economic output on defence within the decade, Coaltion defence spokesperson Andrew Hastie said: “Yes. We are committing to more defence expenditure than the Albanese government.”

Hastie’s promise is notable because the shadow treasurer, Angus Taylor, said last year that defence spending “should be within the envelope that’s already been established”.

The Greens’ defence spokesperson, David Shoebridge, said the Labor government was wrong to “hand billions more to a defence establishment that continually fails to deliver”.

The government says it wants to rein in the practice of “over-programming”, where a raft of defence projects are pledged without enough money allocated to fund them.

In a speech to the Sydney Institute two weeks ago, Marles said the former Coalition government had laid down a defence budget at “historically high levels of over-programming”. In some cases, he said, “for every $100 Defence had to spend it was planning to spend $140”.

While the government argues some level of over-programming is prudent to allow for unforeseen circumstances or delays, it says excessive use of the practice is “costly for industry and ultimately dishonest” because not all projects will actually happen and “everyone is just waiting for the eventual train-wreck”.