Three days ago the Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, provided The Australian with a story about a letter from US Deputy Secretary of Defence, Gordon England, allegedly claiming that Australia could not be sold the advanced F-22 fighter. With high stealth and supersonic cruise, the F-22 is the most advanced US fighter and top of the pack globally.

This report produced a storm in defence analysis and media circles, since Australia has never been denied any major US weapon system. The US practice with trusted allies is to remove some sensitive bits if required, but always to sell the system.

For systems like the F-22, the US established a complex four step process called “LOEXCOM”, involving multiple government agencies, to determine issues in export to a specific ally. After a foreign government requests access, the process is executed, and the resulting recommendation is then put to the President and Congress for them to decide whether to export, and if so with what bits removed or locked.

Here is where the Minister’s claims become strange. In a press release, he stated that “the Government has not asked the United States for access to the F-22 Raptor”, which is the precondition for the US to assess whether export is permitted. No less curious is that Gordon England is not the party responsible in the US for managing this process, a job that falls to the Air Force.

The Minister is thus using a quote from a party not authorised to decide on export, to make a case that export of the F-22 to Australia is not permitted. And all the while the US process for export approval has not been completed.

Excluding foreknowledge, whereby the Minister has reason to believe that Australia would fail the LOEXCOM assessment, this looks much more like simple speculation dressed up as fact to bolster an indefensibly weak position on the Joint Strike Fighter.

What the Minister did not say in his media release is that the US initiated the F-22 LOEXCOM assessment in 1999-2001, but bailed out when the Canberra bureaucracy opted for the Joint Strike Fighter. The first stage of this assessment concluded that Australia could get the F-22, but was never made public at the time as it was never completed. This has been public knowledge since March last year.

So there’s little reason to claim the US doesn’t trust Australia with its planes. Trusting the Minister is another matter altogether.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey