If Boeing is having problems getting the first of 65 Dreamliner 787 jets ready for Qantas, consider the drama going on over a mere six Wedgetail Early Warning and Control aircraft for the ADF.

They are running six years late and have cost Boeing $US2 billion (or more than $A3 billion) in write offs according to the transcript of an Australian Parliamentary Defence Committee hearing last month which has been exhumed in today’s edition of Asia-Pacific Aerospace Report, an insider email bulletin written by aviation veteran Peter Ricketts.

The Wedgetail program is yet another dismal, and very dangerous chapter, in the story of incompetent defence procurement in Australia, as well as sign of the continuing capacity of defence companies to sell any fantasy they like to dumb bureaucrats and weak ministers.

Australia needs these Wedgetails to work as promised, and when promised, which was for 2006. They are critical to an effective response to a northern or north western invasion. But the promised sensors and radars and their integration doesn’t work. It is not clear if they will ever work. They are to be flown on a platform based on the Boeing 737.

Ricketts’ report quotes Air Vice Marshall Chris Deeble as being unconvinced the system will work as advertised by late 2012, which in itself is yet another 18 months later than Boeing previously promised, after a string of broken deadlines.

Deeble is quoted as saying Australia has called in the MIT Lincoln Laboratory in the US to “help Australia understand the baseline performance of the system and to indicate any path forward for remediation of any shortfalls.”

What! We now need help to understand what we bought! A Boeing spokesman flatly denied that it was going to cancel the project, but this is the company that promised Qantas it would have Dreamliners flying by now, and then by late next year, and now claims it doesn’t know when they will fly, or even how far. And it got off the hook with a trifling $291 million in liquidated damages to Qantas.

What does the over promising and under delivering of the Wedgetail and the Dreamliner say about the promises accepted by Brendan Nelson when he impulsively ordered $6 billion worth of F/A -18F Super Hornets to make up the defence gap caused by the delays to the Lockheed Martin lead JSF project?

Or of new defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon in confirming the order for a second rate jet that some critics claim will be as useful against Indonesia’s Russian built jets as the Polish Cavalry was in dealing with Hitler’s Panzer tanks.

Fitzgibbon has already written off $1 billion of taxpayer funds in the ludicrously inept Seasprite helicopter project. It would be chicken feed beside the consequences of a failure of the Wedgetail program.

In 2008, three years after it was due, we need help to understand the manifestly untrue line we were sold year ago. WTF.

Peter Fray

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