By James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia committed to long-term plans to buy up to 100 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as part of its new defense strategy on Friday, easing concerns about the future of the controversial fighter from a major foreign buyer.
Canberra, a close U.S. ally, would also buy 12 Boeing Co EA-18G electronic attack planes, modified versions of the 24 Super Hornets already equipping Australia's air force, as a stopgap until the F-35 is delivered.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced the decisions as he released a new defense white paper, which is the first reassessment of Australia's military priorities since 2009, and since the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific, which included U.S. marine rotations through northern Australia.
"This important decision will assure a first-class air combat capability for Australia through the transition period to the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35), which will proceed on its current schedule," Smith said.
Australia's first two F-35s are due in 2014-15.
Canberra's decision reinforces positive steps for the F-35, coming on the heels of a decision by Norway to buy six F-35s a year earlier than planned, and the Dutch parliament's decision not to reassess F-35 rivals to replace aging F-16s, despite cost overruns and development delays.
Australia decided to stick with the F-35, initially buying 14 F-35s, followed by three operational F-35 squadrons, of around 75 planes, with the first squadron in service from 2020.
The government also holds the option of buying a further 25 F-35s from 2030, to replace the Super Hornets when they are withdrawn from service, bringing the total of F-35s to 100.
The paper makes no commitment to build a fourth advanced air warfare destroyer, part-built by BAE Systems and Spain's Navantia, but opts to replace two ageing supply ships.
Smith also said the government would proceed with plans for 12 new conventional submarines but he ruled out buying the submarines off the shelf, opting instead for new designs to be built in Australia.
With Prime Minister Julia Gillard's minority Labor government under pressure to find Budget savings to respond to collapsing revenues, Australia's net defense budget has contracted to around 1.56 percent of GDP, or A$24.2 billion. As a percentage, spending is at the lowest level since 1938.
The new white paper makes no commitments on defense spending, but says the government remains committed to a target to increase defense funding to 2.0 percent of GDP, but when the economic circumstances allow.
(Additional reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Paul Tait and Michael Perry)