STONE the crows! It seems Stephen Smith is talking softly and carrying a biggish anti-aircraft stick. The first is standard operating procedure for the Defence Minister, whose profile is so low that he regularly operates under the political radar.
But the specialists noticed, as the Minister obviously intended, when Mr Smith went to Washington (sorry) last week and mentioned the cost of the F-35 joint strike fighter during the week.[i] And just to make sure everybody understood what he was saying, he declined to talk about the need for air superiority, the reason underpinning the plan to buy 100 JSFs.[ii]
There is nothing new about the defence community complaining about the cost of kit and fighters have long been supersonic political footballs. Gough Whitlam set the standard with his warning against the F-111 in 1969, (the plane ended its successful service 40 years later). According to Gough:
The F-111 fiasco has not only unbalanced our defence budget, but the RAAF. Even if this aircraft proves technically sound, it will remain a totally unsuitable aircraft for our requirements.[iii]
The Crows remember (as a very small boy) Gough Whitlam also denouncing the F111 because the cost of the box housing its swing-wing gadgetry had gone up. He made a joke about the “money or the box,” – if you don’t remember Bob Dwyer, ask your parents, because it appears lost to history.
But while the Howard Government committed to up to 100 F-35s in 2002 Labor, Stephen Smith is in no position to bail on the grounds that the other side made a mistake.[iv] The Rudd Government confirmed the decision in its 2009 Defence white paper, stating that a review of air defence needs confirmed the F-35 was the best fifth generation fighter “capable of fulfilling Australia’s multirole air capability requirements.[v] Mr Rudd signed off on buying the first tranche of a 72 unit fleet later that year, with the possibility of acquiring another 28 depending on price and schedule. [vi]
Whatever they cost, and whenever they are delivered, it seems certain we are going to end up with F-35s. The question is whether Stephen Smith is signalling he wants fewer of them.
If this is what he is up to, you will not need early warning radar to recognise it – just the standard Smith silence as claims the F-35 is a lemon with wings go unanswered.
We have been here before with understandable arguments over every major aircraft acquisition, involving four assertions.
First, there is the claim the kit is too expensive and too late. Certainly manufacturer Lockheed is not sparing us any expense. The cost of early units has blown out from $US 70 million to $100m plus. But the unit cost will drop as more roll off the production line. [vii] (The RAAF has to buy early units to train crew).
As to delays, the longer the F-35 takes the longer the stop-gap Super Hornets are our first line defence and Stephen Smith has signalled buying more of them if necessary[viii]. But the regular Hornets long in service and their super successors will come to the end of their operational life long before the F-35s, the former are scheduled for phasing out at the end of the decade.[ix] And it may turn out to be worth waiting to get the new plane right, which is what airpower ginger group the Williams Foundation advocates.[x] History provides it with a precedent, the ever-delayed delivery date for the F-111 was a national joke, but when the plane arrived it was huge success.
Then there is the argument that the gear is too complicated and will not work. Certainly there are plenty of precedents of very expensive equipment that did not deliver – the Collins submarines for example. As to the F-35, who knows? Reliability of early planes is not what was expected and there are problems with stealth technology and software but the Americans say there is nothing to worry about.[xi]
Unless of course the plane is not up to its possible opponents on all its functions. This takes us back to the classic Cold War panic when whatever the US or Europeans were building the Soviets were building better. It seems even more unlikely now, with the Russians struggling to keep their armed forces operational and the Chinese talking big but yet to deliver.
But the F-35 is meant to do a lot of things. As Andrew Davis points out, “The F-35 was marketed around the promises of ‘fifth generation’ stealth and sensors and a multi-role capability for strike and air-to-air missions, all at a comparatively low cost.” Together with the Wedgetail and multi-role tanker aircraft, planned for delivery towards the end of the 2000s, the F-35’s attributes would cement Australia’s regional airpower lead. [xii]
Perhaps a specialist aircraft could do some of the F-35’s many tasks better, but not all of them – the question is whether the F-35 can outperform all comers.
And. perhaps not. There are claims the Chinese J-20 will fly higher and faster than the F-35, be more agile while packing a punch the US aircraft can’t meet. [xiii]
Industry observer Air Power Australia argues that both the Russians and Chinese are developing technology that negates the F-35’s stealth capacity, “the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter family of aircraft obsolete well before they have even been operationally fielded.” [xiv]
Good-oh. But short of buying a bunch of specialist aircraft to fulfil specific functions, which is not going to happen, the RAAF needs a plane that can do a bunch of stuff.
But which plane? Airpower Australia argues that the F-35 may not cut it in combat, due to the US doctrinal obsession with stealth and long distance fighting, which is plain wrong:
Beyond Visual Range missile engagements will arise infrequently. Most air combat engagements will devolve into close combat, where ‘traditional’ fighter virtues will be paramount. [xv]
Once again, who knows? Planners can get it wrong – the idea the RAF was unarmed in 1939 is wrong – it had invested heavily in obsolete aircraft. But while aircraft development is measured in decades, time is getting tight. And if not the F-35, then what?
The F-22 Raptor has its fans, but the Yanks would not sell it to us and they have stopped building it. Even if they were to let us have some, people would be out spruiking for the F-35. There is no right answer and, in the end, Defence Ministers have to pay our money and make a choice.
But is the right choice to buy an existing 4.5 generation aircraft, skip the fifth generation altogether and wait for the pilotless planes people presume are coming. Or buy no new fighter at all.
The last idea is the silliest. Yes, nobody is going to attack us tomorrow. But a defenceless Australia would undoubtedly encourage frenemies to look at unprotected assets, the Northwest Shelf in particular. And the idea that the defence forces should be set up for regional roles, peacekeeping and the like, ignores the way strategic airpower encourages people to become very reasonable very quickly.
As for the other options, buying old kit is a bit hard to explain to the people who will have to fly it. As for waiting for the next generation of whizbangery – the questions that apply to extensions of existing technology apply even more to paradigm shifting planes, wait for how long and much.
At present it looks like the F-35 is the only cab on the rank and the question for Stephen Smith is how many do we buy? A persuasive report for the Kokoda Foundation suggested we need 120 planes to keep our strategic options but a four-squadron fleet (100 planes) is the minimum for practical use – anything less being incredibly expensive window dressing.[xvi]
So that’s that.
Not quite. There is one threat that could blow the F-35 out of the sky, the ground to air NIMBY missile. In April, a Canberra law firm announced it was going to the High Court to stop F-35s flying over properties adjacent to RAAF Williamtown.[xvii]
[i] Craig McMurtrie, “Defence minister calls for action on joint strike fighter program,” ABC Radio, AM July 27 @ http://www.abc.net.au/am/content2011/s3278720.htm
[ii] David Ellery, “JSF order raises a query on air prowess,” Canberra Times, July 29
[iii] Gough Whitlam, “1969 election policy speech”, whitlamdismisal.com @
http://whitlamdismissal.com/speeches/69-10-01_policy-speech.shtml recovered on July 30
[v] Australian Government, Department of Defence, “Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Defence white paper 2009,” 78 @ www.defence.gov.au/whitepaper/docs/defence_white_paper_2009.pdf recovered on July 30
[vi] Patrick Walters, “Kevin Rudd signs off on purchase of 14 F-35 joint strike fighters,” The Australian, November 25 2009
[vii] Jeremy Thompson, “US says joint strike fighter is unaffordable,” ABC News, May 20 @ http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-05-20/us-says-joint-strike-fighter-is-unaffordable/2722102
[viii] “More Super Hornets ‘obvious option’ – Smith”, Australian Aviation, July 27 @ http://australianaviation.com.au/2011/07/more-super-hornets-“obvious-choice”-–-smith/#comments recovered on July 30
[ix] Andrew Davies, “Hornets may have to plug the gap,” The Weekend Australian, May 28
[x] The Williams Foundation, “The F-35: holding our nerve, hedging our bets,” nd @ https://williamsfoundation.org.au/sites/default/files/Media%20Release%20F-352.pdf
[xi] Andrew Davis, “What’s plan B? Australia’s air combat capability in the balance,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, May 11, 6 @ www.aspi.org.au/publications/publication_details.aspx?ContentID=292&pubtype=0 recovered on July 30
[xii] Davis, op cit 2
[xiii] Dan Oakes, “Chinese fighter jet rewrites power in region, says critic,” Sydney Morning Herald, January 15
[xvii] Brendan Nicholson, “Noise battle over jet fighter” The Australian April 12