This column appeared in the Canberra Times on Saturday . . .
You have to wade patiently through the first 338 pages of Ian McPhedran's new blockbuster “Air Force" before you get to the bombshell. It's here in the middle of a glossy book extolling the pilots and machines of the RAAF, that the explosion suddenly occurs. The allegation's too hot to ignore; an accusation that our top brass risked leaving the country without a strike aircraft, the mainstay of our defence strategy.
The story can't easily be dismissed because it's backed up. At (quite) some length, McPhedran quotes former Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, who's currently our ambassador to Brussels. It might here be relevant to note that Nelson wasn't known as “rain man" for nothing. He is a master of the seemingly extraneous detail but nothing ever goes to waste. Each and every piece of information is quietly lodged and recorded, somewhere in the back of his mind, and retained until it can be used. Eventually, when the moment comes to complete the puzzle he does so, throwing a myriad of interlocking pieces together until they finally reveal the full picture.
That background buttresses an intricate history that Nelson provides detailing the background to the decision to buy 24 Super Hornet aircraft for the RAAF.
It's important to understand the critical role that the aircraft play in our defence strategy. Although billions are spent on the Army, the reality is that we don't have enough soldiers to provide a genuine deterrent for any enemy force that lands on the continent. Soldiers are important and play a big role in our international commitments in places like Afghanistan, but then not the keystone of our defence. The Navy has a somewhat more important role in protecting the country. The fleet is expected to be able to deter any lodgement by protecting the coastline. But until we are able to put more than one submarine to sea at a time and until they're equipped with missiles, they can't strike back at a potential aggressor. That's the role of strike aircraft.
Back in 2006, when Nelson was Minister, the ageing F–111 aircraft (nicknamed the 'pig') had fulfilled this task. The US air force had ordered these back in the early 1960s, although delays in the cutting-edge technology used for the aircraft meant they didn't arrive for service with the RAAF until 1973. Although they were still (just) capable of carrying out their role, by the end of the last decade the planes were requiring at least 180 hours worth of maintenance work for every hour they spent in the air. The problem was that Nelson's predecessor, Robert Hill, had accepted airforce advice and decided to commit to purchasing the new Joint Strike Fighter. On paper this plane was fantastic. It was designed to achieve all the missions that we required. Unfortunately (and this is key to understanding the massive problem that was about to emerge) it was still on the drawing board. Even if everything had run smoothly, with no hitches in the production of the new aircraft or further problems keeping the pigs running, getting the the JSF's introduction to dovetail smoothly with the of the F–111 was going to be a tight-run thing. This was the problem Nelson became more and more agitated about as he got to understand the workings of Defence.
There's no point going through all the detail – you can do that yourself. Nelson remembers being “reassured on many occasions by senior Air Force officers that there would be no 'gap' (in air combat capability) and that the F–111s and classic F/A 18 Hornets could carry the load well into 2013". But Nelson was getting used to being told that there was “no problem" when all the evidence pointed to the contrary. This reflects the commitment and determination that's instilled in officers during their basic training – achieve the mission, regardless of the odds. Unfortunately, although this ability might be vital on the battlefield, it's not a skill that translates well to the bureaucratic jungle of defence procurement. Nevertheless, even as successive delays and postponements began to plague the new JSF project, the Minister continued to receive positive advice, suggesting there was no problem.
And this is where “rain man" comes into his own. He provides the detail of the relevant conversations; whether it's “returning from the Northern Territory to Canberra on a Challenger VIP jet with the then Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, in April 2006" or other meetings discussing the growing danger that the JSF might not be available when needed. Nelson describes finding “a conspiracy of optimism at play . . . It's part of the character of Defence to say 'we can do it!".
Increasingly, Nelson didn't believe it. He became convinced that the delivery of the new aircraft would not occur as initially scheduled. At the same time he became extremely worried that the F-111's were going to require early retirement. Otherwise, they might simply fall out of the sky. Off his own bat he began to investigate purchasing an alternative jet that could cover the emerging capability gap, long before the Air force had accepted or advised him that this could be the case. That's why we've now got the Super Hornets.
The decision, made by Cabinet after Nelson had presented his own “layman's analysis" of the requirement, cost $6.6 billion. The (then) minister reckons the RAAF didn't want to jeopardise the amount of money allocated to the JSF project and this commitment meant that they weren't prepared to see the major problem that was emerging. The Australian Defence Association’s Neil James confirms Nelson’s account. There’s a story the Airforce Chief was bawled out by the CDF and Secretary for going behind their backs to get the new jets. He correctly protested. It was the Minister’s call.
Unsurprisingly, the recently retired head of the Defence Materiel Organisation, Steve Gumley, was also someone who played a major role in alerting Nelson to the growing question marks over the JSF. Today, many (although not all) of the people involved in the decision have moved on and the department is about to face another new major structural reorganisation. It seems highly doubtful this will achieve anything.
In this regard just note the explosion of growth in senior officer ranks over the past decade. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s compiled the numbers. At the turn of the century we had 110 star-ranked officers in the three services. Today there are 183. In the same time the number of full-time servicepeople has grown by 3,842 (a total of 44,552) It’s more than a new star for every 50 rankers.
Your taxes at work.