Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 00:47 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 00:47 | SYDNEY

Relax, our air defences are fine


Sam Roggeveen


8 March 2010 17:45

Robert Gottliebsen of Business Spectator (which occasionally carries Interpreter posts) recently wrote a column about what he called 'the largest and most dangerous cover-up in the nation's history'. That's quite a claim, and it deserves some scrutiny.

'Largest' might be literally true, in that Gottliebsen is referring to the Government's intention to purchase up to 100 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) in what would be Australia's biggest ever defence contract. But 'most dangerous'? That's a matter of perspective.

Gottliebsen is very concerned about how our air force will stack up against the new Russian Sukhoi T-50 fighter, which just made its first flight:

...the updated version of Russia’s Sukhoi – the so called the PAK-FA T-50 – (is) far superior to the JSF, which would – in time – give India, China and Indonesia air superiority over Australia.

 And because the JSF could be eight years late, the situation is even more dangerous:

In that eight year gap, Australian will rely on upgraded Super Hornets where there is widespread agreement that the aircraft is no match for the earlier versions of the Sukhoi – let alone PAK-FA T-50, which will be available later in the decade. So, Australia will have no independent air defence for eight years. If the JSF is no match for the PAK-FA T-50, then for the next 30 years we would have no way of countering a PAK-FA T-50 flying to any city in Australia.

In a sense, the situation is worse than Gottliebsen allows. 

First of all, India and China already have air superiority over Australia, and have done for many years. They are bigger countries with larger air forces, and if we ran a computer-simulated air war against either of them, with the respective air forces lined up like opposing rugby teams, we'd probably get thumped.

As for Indonesia, it does indeed have a handful of Sukhoi fighters in its inventory which, according to some experts, would outperform our F/A-18 Hornets in one-to-one air battles. But again, things are actually worse then Gottliebson says. Indonesia bought a dozen F-16s in the late '80s which were also a pretty good match for our Hornets. And back in the '60s, Indonesia even had a squadron of Russian Tu-16 bombers with the range to strike our cities.

So how has Australia coped for so long with such shoddy air defences?

Let's first put the Indonesia situation into perspective. The one-to-one comparison Gottliebsen relies on in his piece ignores the fact that our fighter fleet is far larger than Indonesia's; they have fewer than 20 modern fighters, while we have more than 70. Our air force is also better trained, and unlike Indonesia, we have surveillance and aerial refuelling aircraft coming online which will improve our air defences markedly. With the Super Hornet also entering RAAF service, our degree of superiority over the Indonesian air force will actually grow.

Not that we should be complacent about Indonesia. As Hugh White says in today's Australian, the day may not be far off when it has a larger economy than Australia's, and we should expect Indonesia's growth to be accompanied by greater strategic weight. When that day arrives the question will be whether it is desirable or even affordable for Australia to maintain the military capability edge it enjoys today. I have argued that it is not.

The question of maintaining a capability edge over China and India has long been settled. We simply don't have one, and we have to rely on the Americans to give us an edge we could never afford to maintain on our own.

It's pretty unlikely we would ever go to war independently against China or India, but even then, neither can presently reach Australia with large numbers of fighters. In any case, air defence of our cities is a bit of a red herring. You wouldn't need an advanced fighter to penetrate the airspace around Australia's major cities; our landmass is so large and our air force so small that our cities are essentially undefended. The only way to solve that problem is to buy fighters in plainly unaffordable numbers.

But that doesn't mean the JSF decision is unimportant. To again cite Hugh White, Australia must decide whether it wants to be able to participate in coalition air operations against major powers. If we do, then the JSF is really the best of a bad lot. Gottliebsen's solution of continuing to lobby for the F-22 fighter would be higher risk, since production has been capped and is very unlikely to restart.

If you ask me, there's no urgent need for the RAAF to have the capability to join the US in a fight against a major power (better to give that job to the navy's submarines). We have a sufficient margin of air superiority over our regional neighbours, so we could afford to skip the JSF altogether and wait for a future generation of stealthy unmanned combat aircraft.

Photo by Flickr user Peacock Mondern, used under a Creative Commons license.