Saturday 08 Aug 2020 | 22:07 | SYDNEY
Saturday 08 Aug 2020 | 22:07 | SYDNEY

The costs of having 'the best' for our military


Sam Roggeveen


11 April 2008 15:38

I've written several posts (most recent here) questioning  the terms of the defence procurement debate. Too often, multi-billion dollar decisions about the merits of this tank versus that tank, or frigate A versus frigate B, are discussed much as one would compare horses running in the 3.15 at Flemington. Which is fastest? Has the longest range? Carries the best radar and the most missiles?

There was another example of this style of debate on last night's 7.30 Report story about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and the thinking behind it was given its purest expression by Richard Fisher:

In order to deter your adversaries, to make them believe they can not win a war and, therefore, do not want to start a war with Australia, you need the best. And I'm sorry to say that the F 35 is very good in many respects, but in some respects it is not the best.

Fisher is American, which might explain something about his perspective. But from an Australian point of view this is a completely impractical doctrine. Not only is it very diffcult to identify the 'adversary' Fisher refers to, but even back in the days when we did have such an adversary, we never sought the capability to deter the Soviet Union, because it would have bankrupted us. We relied on the US alliance to help us out on that front.

But as the 7.30 Report piece notes, it isn't superpowers threatening our capability edge these days. Countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, India, China and Vietnam are buying Sukhoi fighters that might out-perform the F-35. Left unsaid is the relatively modest numbers of aircraft our immediate neighbours are purchasing, and the huge numbers India and China have in their air forces. Then there is the RAAF's superior pilot training, maintenance, and support aircraft (like our new airborne radar aircraft).

There's also little context offered about our relations with our neighbours, and whether we can realistically see things going so badly wrong in the region that we would even need such a deterrent. Conversely, what if things go really well in the region over the next decade? With a small population and a mature economy, we can't keep up with Asian growth, so how will we afford to maintain our capability edge? And if we try, what are the opportunity costs?

Admittedly such questions are a little drier than the 'gee whizzery' offered by air power experts, but that doesn't make them any less important.