Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 12:17 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 12:17 | SYDNEY

The JSF decision


Sam Roggeveen


30 April 2008 16:43

I hope that The Australian's Cameron Stewart is right, and that Joel Fitzgibbon won't use the air power review report, due to land on his desk today, to make a definitive announcement about the Joint Strike Fighter. Stewart reports that Fitzgibbon will keep his options open until next year. As I wrote yesterday for Crikey (you need a subscription to read the whole thing):

...any decision on future air combat capability should be delayed until after the White Paper is published.

Defence is continuously developing its capabilities, and it is unrealistic to expect that it would all be put on hold until the new White Paper is published. But JSF is not just any defence contract: the fleet is expected to cost $16 billion. And unlike the Super Hornet, we haven’t yet signed contracts for the JSF that it would be financially ruinous to back out of. So what’s the harm in waiting until we make a conscious decision about whether we even need this type or size of fleet?

The rush to JSF suggests the White Paper, when it emerges, will be a status quo document. The JSF is a more capable version of what we have now and will probably be bought in similar numbers. But our security environment has changed radically since the Hornet was ordered in the early eighties, which means we should be asking different questions to the ones which led us to choose the Hornet.

The government will argue that Fitzgibbon’s air power review committee was tasked with exactly that job. But the review’s terms of reference were limited to studying the future of regional air power and a comparative analysis of various fighter planes. In other words, the committee’s job was to write a form guide on which aircraft is fastest, most maneuverable, and carries the best missiles. This mostly misses the point about what Australia’s air power should actually be for.

What are the most urgent security threats to Australia? If they are non-state (terrorism, state failure, climate change), how relevant is offensive air power? Why do we need a "capability edge" in aerial combat, given the risks of Australia being invaded are so small, and that "dogfighting" is so rare in modern warfare? Do we need these planes to be a good alliance partner, or can we fulfill those obligations some other way?Those are questions only a White Paper can answer. Setting huge contracts in stone when the drafting process has barely begun is premature.

I'm not convinced from Stewart's article that any delay in settling on JSF is happening for the right reasons. Stewart says Fitzgibbon is mainly doing it as a way to keep pressure on the manufacturer and US Government with regard to price and delivery dates. But there is no indication that Fitzgibbon wants his White Paper team to first ask some of the deeper questions about the future role of air power, of the kind I list above. It's just assumed that we will need new fighters similar (but better) to the old ones, and in similar numbers.