An interesting commentator has jumped on a story Crikey has been following for a long, long time. Robert Gottliebsen has devoted two columns in two weeks to concerns over the capability of the Joint Strike Fighter purchase, when it will actually go into service, and the defence gap threatened by the retirement of Australia’s F-111s.

“John Howard is in danger of handing to his successor a country that will be totally dependent on the US air shield for at least three years and possibly much longer,” he wrote yesterday. “It is not a legacy any PM would want to be remembered for. For example, it might mean that although our trade interests would prompt us to back China over the Taiwan issue, it would be very dangerous to test the US relationship.”

He went on to tackle Air Marshal Angus Houston over the JSF – but that China mention is interesting. China, of course, is Australia’s current economic saviour. It is already driving a resources boom. It is also engaging in extremely provocative sabre rattling over Taiwan – like the “anti-secession” laws passed just days ago. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in China earlier this week. She warned about Taiwan tensions – and said it would not be sending the right signal if the European Union (EU) were to lift the arms embargo on China. Other arms sales to China should be concerning Australia.

Russia appears to have sold strategic bombers to China, reports The Moscow Times, including the Tupolev Tu-22 Backfire – one mean weapon. Australian analyst Carlo Knopp wrote on the subject last year for the Washington based International Assessment and strategy Centre.

The Backfire is “a long-range aircraft capable of performing nuclear and conventional attack, anti-ship, and reconnaissance missions,” according to the Global Security website. “Its low-level penetration features make it a much more survivable system than its predecessors. Carrying either bombs or AS-4/Kitchen air-to-surface missiles, it is a versatile strike aircraft, believed to be intended for theatre attack in Europe and Asia but also potentially capable of intercontinental missions against the United States. The Backfire can be equipped with probes to permit in-flight refuelling, which would further increase its range and flexibility.”

“Give it tanking and it can go to Canberra,” a defence industry source tells Crikey. The JSF is a battlefield strike fighter, not an air dominance fighter. Watch this debate.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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