The latest signal that the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is in even more trouble came from soon-to-resign US Defence secretary Robert Gates, in an interview given on his way to his current talks in Beijing.
China, Gates said, has “the potential to put some of our capabilities at risk”.
His comments were almost entirely directed at the sudden, unpredicted, early appearance of China’s J-20 answer to the JSF, less than a year after Russia flew its response, in the PAK-FA.
The evasive language of the Gates interview puts Canberra on further notice that the centerpiece of Australian defence planning is under siege.
And no doubt makes for a jolly time in the discussions now going on between himself and the China leadership cadre.
Over the holiday season Gates has announced that the US will put one model of the JSF, with short take-off and landing capabilities, on probation. It’s not the model on which Australia hangs its future air superiority, but it erodes the battered finances of the entire program.
He also foreshadowed reductions in the US order for the other models, thus risking a huge increase in unit cost, and announced more orders for FA 18 Super Hornets to cover delivery short falls, as did Australia, last year.
In a strategic environment that is getting J-20s and the PAK-FA faster than Australia will get “real” JSFs, the Super Hornets are as useful as more horses for the Polish Cavalry.
As are the JSFs, once they meet specifications, when confronted by aircraft that will fly higher and further and faster.
The JSF has a mission profile invented in the ’90s that is designed to fail in the current decade.
Gates’ reference to doubts about the stealth characteristics of the J-20 are disingenuous. If it can kill our JSFs before they even know they are being hunted it hardly matters if they are less than invisible by the time they get to point where the could have been engaged.
The sleeper issue for the Pentagon, which America’s US Air Force Association tried to awaken last year, is a Chinese investment in surface to air missile defences that denies its air space to intruding military aircraft.
It is reasonable to conclude from Gates’ comments about the need to pay more attention to China that one of its immediate objectives has been achieved.
China owns enough US government debt to hurt, and it has a rapidly developing technology base to challenge both its trading and military interests. This includes a proven capability to destroy satellites in orbit, intercontinental nuclear missiles, ground based missile defences and now a large and potentially troubling fight and attack design.
Australia, in the JSF, has no answers. Just a painfully expensive toy that is years late in development, and already below the specifications of rivals that appear closer to entering operations.
Ben Sandilands has reported and analysed the mechanical mobility of humanity since late 1960 - the end of the age of great scheduled ocean liners and coastal steamers and the start of the jet age. He’s worked in newspapers, radio and TV in a wide range of roles as a journalist at home and abroad for 56 years, the last 18 freelance.