Later this week, Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon will receive part two of an experts’ report he commissioned on Australia’s air power. He has already endorsed their earlier recommendation to continue with the Howard Government’s decision to buy 24 Super Hornet strike fighters as a stop-gap when our F-111s retire. And press speculation is that part two of the report will see more continuity with the Howard era: Australia is likely to order up to 100 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) to replace its existing strike fighter fleet.

But Fitzgibbon has also commissioned a new Defence White Paper, which won’t report until the end of this year. He told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in March that the White Paper:

… will be a wide-ranging review of our security environment, our strategic interests, and determining the future tasks and roles for the ADF. Unless we start from this base, future decisions about the ADF’s force structure and key defence capabilities will be neither rigorous nor disciplined.

Fitzgibbon also said that because the previous government had failed to commission a new White Paper, it had made “ad hoc” and “misdirected” decisions.

He’s right, which is exactly why any decision on future air combat capability should be delayed until after the White Paper is published.

Defence is continuously developing its capabilities, and it is unrealistic to expect that it would all be put on hold until the new White Paper is published. But JSF is not just any defence contract: the fleet is expected to cost $16 billion. And unlike the Super Hornet, we haven’t yet signed contracts for the JSF that it would be financially ruinous to back out of. So what’s the harm in waiting until we make a conscious decision about whether we even need this type or size of fleet?

The rush to JSF suggests the White Paper, when it emerges, will be a status quo document. The JSF is a more capable version of what we have now and will probably be bought in similar numbers. But our security environment has changed radically since the Hornet was ordered in the early eighties, which means we should be asking different questions to the ones which led us to choose the Hornet.

The government will argue that Fitzgibbon’s air power review committee was tasked with exactly that job. But the review’s terms of reference were limited to studying the future of regional air power and a comparative analysis of various fighter planes. In other words, the committee’s job was to write a form guide on which aircraft is fastest, most maneuverable, and carries the best missiles. This mostly misses the point about what Australia’s air power should actually be for.

What are the most urgent security threats to Australia? If they are non-state (terrorism, state failure, climate change), how relevant is offensive air power? Why do we need a “capability edge” in aerial combat, given the risks of Australia being invaded are so small, and that “dogfighting” is so rare in modern warfare? Do we need these planes to be a good alliance partner, or can we fulfill those obligations some other way?

Those are questions only a White Paper can answer. Setting huge contracts in stone when the drafting process has barely begun is premature.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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