The historical analogy raised by Dr Carlo Kopp (Monday, item 3) about the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) potentially flying Lockheed P-38 fighters in 1941 to fight off the Japanese with that of his claimed shortfalls in the current strategy to acquire Boeing F/A-18F Block II and Lockheed Martin F-35As actually hits the nail on the head: but not in the way the author intended.
The analogy can be found by the pure fantasy of the P-38 alternate history scenario with the equally inventive scenario created by Dr Kopp’s Air Power Australia (APA) to support their rival case for Lockheed Martin F-22A and developing a new “Super F-111”. Further by investigating what actually happened between 1939 and 1942 in relation to the RAAF’s fighter force structure real lessons can be found for our situation today.
Firstly the P-38 could never be available for RAAF fighter squadron service in time to fight the Japanese onslaught in 1941-42. For one clear reason that it wasn’t even available for the US Air Force during this timeframe, it only entered operational service in late May 1942. After the Japanese attack considerable materiel was shared between Australia and America that subsequently made these aircraft available in limited numbers for reconnaissance purposes.
But even if the RAAF had pursued these aircraft before Pearl Harbour they would have obtained P-38s without the crucial engine turbo-chargers as the US prohibited their export before joining the war. Without the turbo-chargers the P-38 would be a very limited air-to-air performer and relegated to low altitude strike or reconnaissance missions. Only someone as enthusiastically interested in the P-38 as Dr Kopp – as his multi part history of the aircraft published on his webpage suggests – would be so misguided to suggest this historical possibility.
Similarly Dr Kopp and APA have invented a scenario that outlines why the RAAF’s current planned force structure won’t be able to defend Australian interests in the future. The scenario relies on China sending a fleet of fast ex-Soviet bombers (the Tu-22M) to attack offshore resource facilities. Apparently only the F-22A could intercept these bombers.
Some of the glaring problems with this scenario is the Chinese don’t actually have these bombers, the Russian’s won’t sell them, they were built in the 1970s (so they won’t be airworthy much longer) and the missiles they fire would have very little effect on the target offshore facilities. Of course there is also the argument that why would China do this, plus if they had these weapons and we (the west) were at war they would probably use them to target US Air Force bases and of course any half decent naval ship (and we have several) could shoot down the missiles anyway. The Chief of Air Force was perhaps being polite when at the Parliamentary inquiry into RAAF air superiority capability last year he said this scenario came, “from the outer edge of the crystal ball…”
So the analogy between the alternate history fantasy of the P-38 and the current fantasy of the F-22 case are strong. Arguments that the F/A-18F Block II and the F-35A can’t defeat the Sukhoi Su-27 fighter and its derivates are pure nonsense and if true would not just show up the RAAF as cranks but also the mainstay of the US, NATO and others air power plans as bunkum.
But what really happened in the late 1930s and early 1940s? Andrew Ross’s book Armed and Ready: The industrial development and defence of Australia, 1900-1945 is informative on this topic. The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) ‘Wirraway’ was never intended to be a fighter aircraft but rather a trainer and built in large numbers filled this role for the RAAF. But there was considerable debate within Government, the RAAF and defence industry at the time as to what should follow the ‘Wirraway’.
The RAAF wanted heavy twin-engine torpedo bombers and later strike fighters (unable to take on more manoeuvrable enemy fighters) and subsequently sourced the Bristol ‘Beaufort’ and ‘Beaufighter’ designs from Great Britain. Government established the Government Aircraft Factory replicating the capability of the privately owned CAC to build these aircraft causing considerable delay in their delivery.
While admirable aircraft they weren’t available to achieve air superiority by shooting down Japanese ‘Zeros’ in 1941-42. However CAC at the time (1939ish) promoted the idea of following the ‘Wirraway’ with an Australian designed highly manoeuvrable single engine fighter similar but more advanced to the ‘Zero’. Aiding us in this endeavour was one of CAC’s aircraft designers who had worked on the ‘Zero’ program and in many ways our industry was more advanced (able to produce lighter materials, etc) than the Japanese. It is not unreasonable to suggest that is given the go-ahead in 1939 this program could have provided the very aircraft the RAAF needed and in numbers in time for early war service against the Japanese.
The RAAF and Government said no to the CAC ‘Aussie Zero’ remaining fixed on the twin-engine single role aircraft. Large numbers of these flexible single engine fighters could have been available and would have been a major benefit to the RAAF in the dark days of 1941-42 and later.
The real historical lesson is clear: don’t be fixated on engine power over flexibility and don’t go down complex industrial paths to secure your aircraft. This is the strategy being followed by the RAAF in acquiring the highly flexible and still very capable F-35A as our new air combat capability and the F/A-18F Block II as a bridging to it. Further debates about the defence of Australia are best left firmly rooted in reality both historical and speculative, not this nonsense presented here by Dr Kopp.
Abraham Gubler is the Features Editor of the Australian Defence Business Review the leading national defence industry analysis and news journal. He has published widely on air power issues and the new air combat capability. He has flown both a F/A-18F Block II and the F-35 high fidelity simulator.