Sunday, March 23, 2014


Australia's going to buy the F35, and guess what . . . we're going to buy a lot of them. 

Some who read this column mistook this 'fact' for an endorsement. Others thought I was being critical. Perhaps it was a problem with my tone. 

Nevertheless, there one is . . . 


I'm afraid this column gets a bit technical in parts, but stick with it because all the dollars it refers to - and there’s a lot of them - are all coming out of your pocket. Perhaps more importantly, we’re not just  talking about huge sums of money here. The decision that Cabinet will soon announce is both so vital, and so expensive, that it will shape the contours of our defence for the next thirty years. 

Australia’s security depends on airpower. Of course there are other services as well and everyone does have a role to play. Nevertheless, the reality is we rely on the airforce to control our sky. As long as the RAAF’s flying we can stop any opponent lodging forces in Australia. It’s as simple as that. 

The keystone of this capability has been, for the past half-century, provided by fast jets. First it was the pigs, the F-111’s; then F/A 18 Hornets. Tomorrow it will be brand spanking new F-35’s, the Joint Strike Fighters. That much has been decided. The only remaining questions still to be answered are; how many will we buy, and at what cost? 

Let’s begin with the money first of all because there’s some good news. I watched as the first two plane’s wings were slowly inching their way along the factory floor in Dallas (signed by some of the RAAF pilots who’ll fly them). It was obvious even then that they’d be more expensive than an Airfix model, but the actual price we’ve paid was astounding. These aircraft cost a cool $130 million. Each. If you say that fast enough it doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it actually is. Six or so aircraft at that price, for example, would equal a brand new hospital. So we’re talking big money. 

That’s why you can probably imagine the shock that rippled around the press room when the nice man from the United States Air Force spoke (well, he was a general actually, and he said he really shouldn’t be telling us this, but hey, guess what? He would!). The aircraft won’t cost $130 million after all. They’ll be - and this was the big surprise - cheaper! 

Yes, now we can have one of these beauties for (just) $85 mil, although I’m not sure if you get your own choice of colour scheme with such a knock-down, bargain basement price. Still, it’s a mad, mad, sale and it’s exceptionally good news, because now we can afford more planes, as long as we buy more. Confused? Don’t be. It’s all ‘economies of scale’ and all that. The more you buy the cheaper they are - just don’t think about cutting back on the total number because then the price will zoom back up. So each of our three front-line squadrons will be able to possess 24 aircraft, rather than 12. But forget about those hospitals. 

The other advantage with buying the JSF’s is that Tony Abbott has  already made a firm commitment to increase defence spending to two percent of GDP by . . . (insert your preferred date here). That’s the great thing about buying equipment, like the JSF. Make a decision today and it shows up on budget documents at once, even if you don’t actually pay until tomorrow. It also guarantees the government will be able to meet its spending commitment. 

The betting is we’re going to get three squadrons worth of aircraft (plus spares and trainers), we’ll buy them all in one lump (because they’re cheaper that way). The payoff for Lockheed is they’ve got a solid order and the RAAF’s happy because this purchase will mean it remains the dominant player in the region. There’s only one issue that still niggles. 

The knuckleheads who ordered the fighter (it’s OK, this is an acceptable term for a fighter pilot) and the people who are making the decisions are still thinking in terms of the Battle of Britain. They’re dreaming of fighter pilots wearing silk scarves running across cut-grass tarmacs to their Spitfires; instead of grappling with some of the new challenges that are likely to confront us in the 21st Century. 

We’re buying (exclusively) the ‘A’ version of the JSF. That’s the traditional version. The ‘C’ version is a carrier jet, but although the two Landing Helicopter Dock ships we’re buying from Spain could be fitted out with catapults and arresting gear like aircraft carriers (and Lockheed’s done feasibility studies), there are no plans to add this capability. And we’re not planning to buy any of the Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) ‘B’ versions of the JSF either. 

The reason this is a disastrous strategic mistake is because it severely limits flexibility in the way the aircraft is used. Without a long runway, the plane just can’t get airborne. This is a critical weakness in an era of precision guided munitions. Shooting the planes out of the sky may, as advertised, prove impossible for any adversary - although that’s exactly why they’ll be searching for other vulnerabilities which can also render the JSF’s ineffective. Lacking the STOVL capability means the aircraft can’t be forward deployed to other areas where our forces might be operating, such as small islands or underdeveloped countries. More time will be spent burning up fuel in transit. Response time will be slower. 

The point is, if we’re buying some 70-odd aircraft anyway, it’d make good sense to have at least one of the squadrons with this added capability. It’s my understanding that the RAAF didn’t even present the Minister with this option - it was ruled out years ago. No-one’s been prepared to put it up again, despite the increasing strategic evidence that this might be just what the country needs. 


  1. Good point Nick - VSTOL virtue was amply demonstrated long ago in the Falklands Islands war.

  2. Superb and very detailed White Paper submission on the F35B/LHD question here -

    Highly recommended.