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The government announced last week the agreement to purchase from the US what will be the bulk of Australia’s air power out to the middle of this century.
Fifty-eight F-35 A Lightning II Fighters plus 14 already ordered will replace the RAAFs F/A-18 Hornets approaching the point where they will be older than many of their pilots.
Though a long-planned purchase, the timing of the announcement sits awkwardly with Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey’s Rambo rhetoric on the budget.
But perhaps the proximity to ANZAC day – when the nation is reminded that peace is the exception rather than the rule of human experience – is the method in the apparent madness of formalising this procurement weeks before a budget widely expected to demand thrift on the home front.
That these 58 aircraft will cost something like AUD$12.4 billion, plus $1.6 billion for base upgrades, has filled many column inches and comment sections. This is right and proper given the scale of public investment it represents.
What is neither right nor proper is the sub-standard commentary that surrounds the issue, stoked by a vast under-layer of military and industry politics which has seen many polarize into Lightning lovers or loathers depending on where their interests lie.
The Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program has been blighted by mismanagement and technical issues leading to dramatic cost overruns and endless delays. Many of these result from the concept of a single basic design to replace a vast range of US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft, including a variant capable of short take-off and vertical landing.
This was intended to save money, but the task of designing a fighter to be all things to all men has proven to be both a much greater technical challenge than anticipated and vastly more expensive.
There are better, faster, more agile fighters available, such as the European Typhoon or even the Super Hornets we already have. They are among the most advanced of the current generation of fighters, but therein lies the problem with them – they won’t be in 30 years time, which is at least how long any aircraft we buy today needs to remain part of a credible weapons system.
The F-35 was born prematurely and is still struggling to thrive. It nonetheless has the potential to give Australia a potent air combat capability out to the 2040’s. The alternatives are already starting to show their age and will start to look geriatric in the 2020’s.
Australia has chosen the “least worst” option for its future fighter.
The question lies around not whether we should buy the F-35 or not, but what can we do to make the best of it.
How did we end up in a situation where the whole of the Western world’s future air-dominance, the linchpin of our way of fighting, is dependent upon one model of fighter from one manufacturer?
We should not be stuck with the F-35, but the reality is – we are.