Australian Minister Wants Option to Buy U.S. F-22 Raptor

Australia's defense minister said Saturday he wanted the option of buying Lockheed's F-22 Raptor -- a jet fighter barred by U.S. law from sale overseas.

Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon told reporters he wanted to consider buying the state-of-the-art F-22 as part of a review of Australia's air defense capabilities. The review, announced this week, is due to be completed by the end of April.

"The Australian government doesn't have any view about whether the F-22 should be or should not be part of the mix, but we do want the opportunity to consider the F-22," Fitzgibbon said after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates told reporters he had no objection to the sale to Australia, but said U.S. Congress would have to change the law.

"While we in principle have no objection to it, until the statute is changed, we are not able to sell it to any country," Gates said.

A potential casualty of the review is the previous government's 6 billion Australian dollar (US$4.6 billion; euro3.5 billion) contract to buy 24 U.S.-manufactured Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets as a transitional aircraft.

"The key to Australia's defenses is maintaining the air superiority that we enjoy ... and on that basis, we have to make absolutely sure we make the correct decisions as we plan for both the near and long-term future," Fitzgibbon said.

The air capability review is part of a wider examination announced this week of Australia's defense capabilities, which will set a new blueprint for how they are developed over the next 20 years to deal with emerging threats.

The last such review was conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

Fitzgibbon, whose center-left government was elected in November last year after 11 years in opposition, said some of the previous government's security decisions "lacked strategic guidance."

He said he would take Gates' advice and write to both the defense secretary and Congress for permission to buy the F-22.

"The secretary and I did have a discussion on this issue and he was very helpful in guiding me in terms of how I might best approach the United States government," Fitzgibbon said.

The discussion came during a high-level bilateral strategic summit in Australia's national capital, Canberra.

Gates and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte led the most senior American delegation to Australia since its new government was elected.