Tuesday, September 24, 2013


No quibbles about the technology.

A trip to the US has left me convinced the JSF really does offer an advance on alternative fighter aircraft options for the RAAF.

The issue is to balance the cost against the need.

But, as this column for the Canberra Times points out, the decision that will emerge from this process is far from certain . . .


My trip to America was very nice, thanks for asking. I had a lovely time, although one would, wouldn’t one, if you were flying across the States and enjoying classified briefings on all the sorts of things that excite journalists who write about national security issues. The massive corporation manufacturing our shiny new Joint Strike Fighter, Lockheed Martin, outdid itself, and that’s really saying something.

Although this, in itself, poses a question. Arms manufacturers aren’t widely known for random acts of kindness. So what was behind this sudden, spontaneous, generosity? To answer that question it’s necessary to look beyond the surface. There’s a reason for the corporation’s sudden demonstration of love towards fiercely independent journalism (for which this column is renown).

So firstly, let’s get the technical stuff out of the way. The most recent issue of the magazine Vanity Fair is only one of a number of media outlets to pretend it’s penetrated the classified wall to discover the ‘real story’ about the JSF’s performance. It’s a good tale. Audiences love narratives about evil corporations gouging money and providing inferior goods. Nevertheless, and particularly if you examine the allegations in detail, they do rather tend to fall apart. Stories about the fighter’s problems say more about the way journalism works than they do about the top-secret aircraft itself.

If everything’s going well there’s no story. Problems are. In its early development years the JSF program was plagued with difficulties. This is the first fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Designed to push the boundaries in every way it requires an entirely new way of thinking about aerial warfare.

Now I’m not competent to judge what I’ve seen and heard but others are. The technical experts (and not just the ones working for Lockheed) appear genuinely excited by the aircraft’s capabilities. Those who understand these things (like the planes apparently startling ability to “pull seven g’s as soon as it’s in the air” and a capacity to “create a shared network conversation with other assets, providing a remarkable transparency of the battle-space”) were all nodding excitedly and displaying the eager enthusiasm of a teenager on a first date.

There have been developmental problems, nevertheless these appear to have been overcome. That’s where a bit of history is relevant.

In a few weeks’ time it will be November; exactly fifty years since President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. We all know about the motorcade, and the shooting, but what’s been forgotten is the Australian link to his death. That morning JFK was in Fort Worth to announce details of the US’s agreement to sell us another revolutionary aircraft, the F-111. This plane was made at exactly the same plant as the JSF and, just like our current aircraft, was heavily criticised at the time of purchase. Back then the bomber was nicknamed the “pig” but from the minute it entered service it offered a spectacular breakthrough in capability – something that only an aircraft designed at the very edges of technical possibility could possibly hope to emulate.

The more you understand the JSF, the more stories about its supposed underperformance are reminiscent of those vague conspiracy theories surrounding the death of JFK. According to these there was actually a ‘second shooter’, as well as the actual assassin. This shooters role was to make sure the idealistic young President (who was supposedly threatening the military-industrial complex) really was ‘taken out’. According to this theory the real killer fired from a grassy knoll overlooking the motorcade. This can still be seen.

The only problem is it’s not true and no number of movies will make it accurate. It can’t be disproved but that doesn’t mean it’s correct. And it’s much the same with the invented intrigues surrounding the JSF. This suffered similar setbacks to that original F-111 program but good people, not just those who have reason to spruik the program, assure us it’s now back on track and better than ever. This is the key to understanding my trip. The real purpose wasn’t really to convince us that the jet is terrific. Lockheed’s confident enough of the feedback it’s getting from its customer, the RAAF, not to worry about that. The source of concern lies elsewhere.

This is where the politics comes in. Labor committed, in both its Defence White Papers, to buying 72 JSF’s. The coalition has similarly gushed about the purchase’s necessity. Nothing else can do what the JSF does. But the crunch comes in March. This is the date when numbers and timing of the buy have to be announced. Unfortunately, there’s a new fiscal environment. The chill winds of spending freezes are flicking around Russell Hill. Nothing can be taken for granted.

Announcing that you’re spending big money on the fighter – even though it’s vital and the money committed won’t have any impact on the budget for years to come – doesn’t look good at a time when the government is cutting elsewhere. The temptation is to try and save money by shaving the purchase to around, say, 54. Doing this would be a mistake.

The fighter is good; but quantity has a quality all of its own. Three squadrons are needed to cover our North. Two just won’t do the job. We have obtained other aircraft as interim purchases to make up for the delay in delivery and there will be the temptation to assert these can stand-in for the extra JSF’s. Judging from the briefings, that’s not the case. Better-qualified people than myself will take this decision. It’s just important they base their decision on military grounds: not the perceived need to save money.

Nic Stuart travelled to America courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

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