Stone the crows! If the new fighter is so flash why is the government cutting its order?

The government’s decision to buy 58 F-35 fighter planes, on top of the first 14, generated three predictable responses.[i]

The Opposition endorsed it – hardly surprising given Labor agreed on the aircraft in office, although sometime defence minister Stephen Smith quibbled about the program’s cost and capability.[ii]

Expert critics contended it was the wrong plane, that it would not match Russian and Chinese competitors, that it is designed to fight with the, now cancelled, F-22 Raptor providing cover.[iii]

And then there were commentators who contrasted $12bn for the fighter with the government’s warnings on the cost of welfare. According to Greens acting leader Adam Bandt, “Tony Abbott’s priority should be pensions, not poorly performing planes,” as if the defence of Australia is an optional extra to be undertaken after the social security bill is paid.[iv]

Which in fact is pretty much what is happening. Because the 72 fighters we are buying are fewer than the “up to 100” both the Howard and (first) Rudd governments signed off on.[v] Even if the government ends up buying another 14, as the Prime Minister promises to consider, we will still be squadrons short.[vi] Of the original decision, that is – which is not necessarily as many as we need.

In 2005, the Kokoda Foundation workshopped scenarios using three, four and five 16 aircraft operational squadrons, plus support. The exercise found the three squadron option was ineffective, simply because there were not enough aircraft to either defend Australia or participate over time in a distant campaign. Four squadrons could support aggressive and air-defence operations with some casualties, but not for long.

However, the 120 plane, five-squadron option would give Australia the resources to set the agenda rather than just respond to an aggressor. The weakest aspect of the argument for more was less military than financial – that 120 instead of 100 F-35s would save money. “The sensors, data fusion and networking capabilities that the JSF brings means that it can do much more than these traditional air combat tasks – filling other capability gaps and providing the government with new options.”[vii] Perhaps, but at $1.5bn a squadron the capability gaps would have to be chasms.

The same applies to submarines. The politics of who supplies the plans for what we build, sorry assemble, in Adelaide to replace the Collins Class has gone on for years.[viii] And it has overwhelmed the equally important argument over how many new submarines are required to do what we need.

The Rudd defence white paper fantasised about 12 submarines to replace Collins. [ix] This commitment continued in 2013[x]. Now, not so much. In a substantial speech earlier this month, Defence Minister David Johnston acknowledged there is “a lot of speculation” about the number of submarines. However, his “primary focus” is not on numbers but on the capability and availability of boats required to meet the tasks set by government. “As part of the white paper process we will re-examine the strategic objectives of the future submarine program including the number of submarines required at sea and therefore the total number of submarines,” he said.[xi]

Fair enough. But lobby group the Submarine Institute makes the obvious point that to always have two subs on long range station and one at sea closer to home requires a force of 12. “Australia’s defence strategy is one of self-reliance within the context of the ANZUS alliance and regional cooperation. We expect to be able to deter and defeat armed attacks without relying on the combat forces of another country, to the greatest extent possible,” the Institute argues. [xii]

But what is the betting that, as with the fighters, we get what is affordable after domestic demands are met?

This reflects the long-established logic of spending less on defence because we either face no threats or the Yanks have us covered. The first is a very big bet indeed and the second assumes the US is happy to carry us. As former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage points out, “Australia is making the assumption that the US will always be there for her, but you are also saying that Australia does not want to pull its fair share when it comes to defence.”[xiii]

A fighter force that cannot sustain independent action over time and a submarine flotilla that can only have one, or two at best, always on station cannot secure Australia’s air-sea approaches. In essence, we are relying on potential aggressors assuming the US will protect us. Indeed, Andrew Davies argues that the US is our only option, “It’s very unlikely that Australia could make a sustained material difference to the trans-Pacific balance of power at any practically sustainable level of defence spending.”[xiv]

However, what happens if the Yanks could not, or would not protect us does not bear thinking about. It is easy to argue that we face no threat – that no one will bomb our cities. But this does not mean an aggressor in 20 years will not sink the tankers that import all out oil or disrupt the ore carriers that carry our exports. And without the US what would we do about it? On the basis of present force planning not much. Hugh White suggests that to deny an enemy control of the oceans around us we need 24 submarines and 200 front-line combat aircraft. [xv]

In essence, we must do more to protect ourselves, be it to deter attackers on our own or to demonstrate to Washington that we are not playing the US for mugs.

But how much more? The easy answer is to set a symbolic target, which is what the Government did in opposition – promising to lift defence spending to two per cent of GDP within a decade.[xvi] But this is an easy answer – the better, albeit harder one, is to decide what we need and budget accordingly. This could mean, for example, the RAAF and the RAN get the fighters and subs they need to have a show of protecting the approaches to Australia and the army misses out on all of the 1100 armoured fighting vehicles it wants in the $10bn Land 400 program. [xvii]

If the Abbott Government is as serious about defence as it claims, it is time to start committing to the kit we need and in the numbers required to be effective and cutting back elsewhere.

To do anything else denies the Prime Minister’s own warning; “You just don’t know what’s around the corner … because the world remained a difficult and often dangerous place, ‘sensible’ countries had to have military forces capable of dealing with foreseeable contingencies.”[xviii]

Speeches drafted, opeds created. Call Stephen Matchett 0417469093


[i] Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, “F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to transform Australia’s air combat capability” April 23, @ recovered on April 25

[ii] David Wroe and Mark Kenny, “Australia to buy 58 Joint Strike Fighters,” Sydney Morning Herald, April 22, Craig McMurtrie, “Defence Minister calls for action on Joint Strike Fighter program,” ABC Radio, AM July 27 2011 @ recovered on April 25

[iii] Brendan Nicholson, “Visionary fighter a home run,” The Australian April 24, Andrew Tarantola, “The only thing keeping the F-35 Lightning relevant is the F-22 Raptor,” Gizmodo, April 2 @ recovered on April 25

[iv] Bridie Jabour, “Fighter planes: Australia ‘already has’ the $12.4bn to pay for stealth jets,” Guardian April 23 recovered on April 25

[v] David Watt, “The joint strike fighter: overview and status,” Parliamentary Library, July 26 2012 @ recovered on April 25

[vi] ABC News, “Joint Strike Fighters: Government to spend $12bn on 58 more next-generation F-35s,” April 23 @ recovered on April 25

[vii] Peter Nicholson and David Connery, Australia’s future Joint Strike Fighter Fleet: how much is too little? Kokoda Foundation, October 2005 @ recovered on April 25

[viii] For the state of the debate, see Cameron Stewart’s masterful outline, “Swedish designs on our sea power,” The Australian April 12

[ix] Department of Defence, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific century: Force 2030, (2009) @ recovered on April 25

[x] Department of Defence, Defence White Paper, 2013 (2013) @ recovered on April 25

[xi] Minister for Defence, “Address to the ASPI conference,” April 9 2014 @ recovered on April 25

[xii] Submarine Institute of Australia, Long range submarines (submission to the Defence White Paper community consultation panel) March 5 2013 @ recovered on April 25

[xiii] Christopher Joye, “Richard Armitage: why the free ride on US must stop,” Australian Financial Review, August 19 2013

[xiv] Mark Thomson, “Australia’s future defence spending and its alliance with the United States,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, February 28 2013 @ recovered on April 25

[xv] Hugh White, “A middling power: why Australia’s defence is all at sea,” The Monthly, September 2012 @ recovered on April 25

[xvi] Liberal Party, “The Coalition’s policy for stronger defence,” September 2 2013 @ recovered on April 25

[xvii] Daniel Nichola, “LAND 400 and the future of Army,” The Strategist, February 2014 @ recovered on April 25 recovered on April 25

[xviii] AAP, “You never know what’s around the corner,” Channel Nine News @ recovered on April 25