The 4 Corners “Flying Blind” feature which aired last night did a superb job of presenting the Australian public with the enormity of the planning mess served up to the Australian taxpayer by the last two Defence ministers and the dysfunctionality they allowed in the Department. Australia had one of the most potent air forces in the region, but will soon have one of the least potent.

The big question, which the 45 minute format of 4 Corners could not address, is how to repair the damage. The good news is that this has been studied carefully by a good number of very knowledgable people, some of whom appeared in the program.

The first step is to bail out of the contract to purchase the 24 Super Hornets, which at this early point will be easy to do.

The second step is to ditch the unnecessary plan for early retirement of the F-111 fleet, restore diverted funding, and initiate long overdue capability upgrades on the fleet, again easy and not expensive to do. Buying up some more spare F-111s at 10% cost from US mothball stock would also be simple to do.

The third step is to stop pouring taxpayer’s funds into the black hole of upgrades on the uncompetitive “classic” Hornets Australia still operates, and initiate planning for retirement post 2010.

The fourth and most important step is to gain access to the US F-22A Raptor fighter as a replacement for the “classic” Hornets, solving the capability gap problems in the long term.

Finally, Australia should hold off on any commitments to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, until such time as a full production combat configuration of this aircraft can be test flown against representative opposition aircraft such as the Russian Su-35BM series. Opportunities to retire risk on the JSF should be explored.

These damage control measures fix the problems created in the RAAF force structure, but do not fix the underlying dysfunctions in Defence and its broken interface to the parliament, which created this mess in the first place.

That will require an Australian equivalent to the US Goldwater-Nichols Act which was introduced to fix a “broken US Department of Defence” and has proven since enormously successful. Introducing an Australian “Goldwater-Nichols Act” will require a serious commitment by the whole of parliament, as the Defence bureaucracy will fight it tooth and nail.

It has taken over three decades of botched up attempts to reform Defence to create the current mess, but the US experience shows such problems can be fixed.

The next parliament will have to shoulder this burden, failing to do so will make a mockery of the upbeat pre-election rhetoric the Australian community is currently being bombarded with.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey