The debate over whether Australia should proceed
with the Joint Strike Fighter, or acquire a smaller number of the more capable
F-22 Raptor stealth fighters and keep its F-111s, has taken another turn this
week with Labor throwing its support behind the F-22.

Yet the ALP are not the first parliamentarians to back the Raptor.
Liberal member for Tangney and former Defence scientist, Dr Dennis Jensen, did
so several weeks ago in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry into regional
air superiority
and subsequent media comment.

The debate over the F-22 versus the Joint Strike Fighter has much
earlier origins. Defence analyst Carlo Kopp argued this case in a 1998
ministerial submission. Since then the Defence leadership, against repeated
advice from many in the defence community – as well as many departmental
figures – has pushed the Joint Strike Fighter to the government, effectively
enshrining it as the future replacement for Australia’s F-111s and
F/A-18As.

Critics are concerned about two broad issues. The first is that the JSF
is not the right category of aircraft. It is a light bomber which cannot
compete effectively against the latest Russian fighters in the region while
lacking the punch of the much bigger F-111. The second is that the ballooning
cost and risk in the JSF will see the late delivery of an aircraft with marginal
stealth and performance, at an inflated cost.

Only three of the public submissions presented to the regional air superiority
inquiry support Defence’s position. Dissenters from the Defence position
include two retired ADF generals, two retired air force test pilots, and the
Air Power Australia think tank.

Last week the inquiry heard evidence from interested parties, including
the Kokoda Foundation.
Kokoda is substantially funded by Defence – and enthusiastically supported the JSF proposal. Another supporter, Dr Alan
Stephens, was formerly the RAAF historian, and has been a vocal advocate of the
Joint Strike Fighter since he first argued for the aircraft in a 2002 paper.

Defence wants the Government to commit in coming months to signing a
Memorandum of Understanding with the Joint Strike Fighter manufacturer. This
document is a de facto commitment to buy, making it particularly difficult for Australia to extricate
itself.

With the prospect of more unwelcome news on Joint Strike Fighter delays,
cost increases and performance compromises over the next two years, Defence see
an early government commitment as a fast way to kill off the long running F-22
versus Joint Strike Fighter debate and evade further criticism.

It would seem the stealthiest aspect of the Joint Strike Fighter is in
how Defence are selling it to parliament and the Australian community.

Peter Fray

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