It became official last week – and what we’ve been warning for ages.
Australia’s new jet fighters will be delivered years late and cost twice as
much as expected, leaving the country with fewer aircraft and a significantly
reduced air defence capacity for several years.
Embarrassing news for a government so obsessed with security that it won’t let
you carry a pair of finger nail scissors on to a commuter flight. Embarrassing
news to emerge with all the brass gathering this week for the biggest event in
the local flyboys’ calendar, the Avalon Air Show. Embarrassing, but not unforseen.
The plane in question is the US Joint Strike Fighter. The Howard Government has
signed up to the JSF project sight unseen. It plans to buy around 100 of the
next-generation aircraft to replace the F-111s and F/A-18 Hornets. Defence
Minister Robert Hill said the planes would cost around $67 million each. Now,
the US Government Accountability Office has said the tag will be $147 million – and defence experts fear it’s
unlikely that Australia will take delivery of the jet before 2015, five years
after the F-111s are due to be retired.
Lockheed Martin, the JSF’s manufacturers, are at Avalon this week. They can no
doubt answer queries about the cost and time delays. They won’t be able to
tackle a bigger question, though – is the JSF really up to the job? Defence
bods say the plane should eventually be good at what it is being created to do
– but this isn’t what Australia needs. The well-regarded Air Power Australia website states, “The Joint Strike Fighter shows every prospect of being
exceptionally well suited to its primary design roles of battlefield strike and
close air support of ground troops, but it is not designed to perform air
superiority roles, unlike the larger F/A-22A, and is not well adapted to
performing the long range strike role now filled by the F-111. There has been
considerable adverse press associated with JSF cost overruns and project
The Air Power Australia people warn Defence is wasting money and creating a
serious strategic risk for Australia in the 2010-20 timeframe – and possibly
earlier. Labor is on to the issue, too.
Defence spokesman Arch Bevis says the Federal Government’s decision to retire
F-111 fighter jets in 2010 has left Australia vulnerable. He has called for a
parliamentary inquiry into the emerging gap in Australia’s air defences. Is that
what’s really on display this week at Avalon?