Listening to the august pronouncements of our Defence Minister, in unison with the Defence bureaucracy, over recent months, one could almost be forgiven for missing the fact that Australia is now in the midst of the most intensive regional arms race seen since the late Cold War. The deeper reality is that Australia is now repeating exactly the same kind of defence planning blunders committed during the late 1930s.

In July, 1939, Australia took delivery of its first CAC Wirraways, an armed trainer touted then as good enough to tackle the modern Japanese fighters appearing then in the region. The rest is history. It is said that one RAAF pilot, before taking off in his Wirraway to confront the fearsome Japanese Zeroes, commented to his commanding officer: ‘Morituri te Salutant’, the Roman gladiators’ traditional salutation before entering the arena. Suffice to say, very few of these brave young men made it home. The Wirraway was no match for the Zero. Nor was the rotund Brewster Buffalo, flown by Australian pilots in Malaya, and wiped out by the Zeroes within the first few days of combat.

Were better fighters available at the time? Absolutely. Lockheed built the superlative P-38 fighter. It later became the top scoring aircraft in the Pacific theatre of World War II, and saved the American daylight bombing campaign from annihilation over Germany in late 1943.

What is different in 2007, versus 1937, in Defence planning terms? Very little it seems. In 2002, the Defence bureaucracy declared the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to be the best choice for the RAAF. Despite intensive criticism by most senior defence analysts, ongoing price creep upwards, and performance creep downwards, the bureaucrats continue to cling to the JSF as their panacea solution. Earlier this year the Defence Minister, after many months of intensive public objection by defence analysts, decided to buy 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets, as gapfillers before the JSFs arrive, eventually.

Why does this matter? Asia is arming itself to the teeth, and with spare cash to burn, nothing is off limits today. The money is mostly being put into Russian Flanker fighter aircraft, airborne early warning aircraft, Ilyushin aerial refuelling aircraft, cruise missiles, smart bombs of every persuasion, and advanced guided missiles. Most of this gear is designed or made in Russia which, post-Cold War, has become the leading supplier of hi-tech weapons in Asia.

Canberra appears blissfully unaware of the changes we are seeing in Asia. The F/A-18F and Joint Strike Fighter are outclassed by the Russian jets on all cardinal specs. Neither has the speed, range or payload to stop modern cruise missile attacks. Both will at best be good for chasing tanks on the battlefield, and neither has deterrent value or combat effect when put up against the Russian hardware now appearing in Asia.

Despite better choices like Lockheed-Martin’s F-22 Raptor fighter, the defence bureaucracy and minister are in the process of repeating the blunders of the late 1930s.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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