The head of the Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program Mr Tom Burbage is wrapping up a visit to Australia this week. Lockheed’s unofficial motto is: We define the enemy, so that we can offer a solution. Burbage is here to tell Defence leaders that somehow the F-35 program is on track and we should get ready to sign on the dotted line next year.

Some are convinced it’s a good deal, like Mr Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. In a Lateline TV program earlier this week he said he believes that the fighter program is the most affordable jet for Australia. As for its hoped combat ability, LockMart’s Mr. Burbage was in the same program saying, in effect, we have run thousands of analyses; the aeroplane is evaluated constantly by actual pilots and real air forces in a very stressing set of scenarios and Australian pilots have flown the simulator in those scenarios. These are bold claims of price and combat prowess considering a real aircraft with real war systems is years away from flying. The aircraft may never be affordable and most likely will not meet the future needs for the defence of Australia.

What else has Mr. Burbage said during this visit? In the ABC piece “Fighter jet production to continue despite gloom” he states that the program will go ahead with or without Australia. While this bravado may sound good, let’s look outside Australia and consider the wobbly F-35 participants:

  • Since 2006 Canada has cut their requirement from the original 88 to 60-65 and there is no guarantee that Canada’s next fighter purchase will be the F-35.
  • Denmark is looking at other fighter aircraft besides the F-35 for their F-16 replacement.
  • The Dutch seem to be the rebel of the team — there have been serious discussions (Google translate Dutch to English) by politicians about whether their defence department has been honest about procurement plans involving the F-35.
  • Norway wants more home industry work and may get it with a fighter made by SAAB called the Gripen.
  • Italy has decided not to buy into the test program as originally planned.
  • In the U.K. there has been talk about not procuring the F-35 because the country can’t afford it.
  • Turkey, because of the strong influence of their military on politics would seem to be a sure thing. However even they are taking a harder look at military procurement the new economic reality.
  • The United States Air Force, the biggest potential buyer of the F-35, is flat broke. The U.S. Navy isn’t in a rush. F-35 arrival into the fleet has been delayed to pay for an out of control ship-building industry. The F-35 program recently crowed about Israel wanting to purchase some F-35s. This sounds like progress until you consider it really isn’t a sale.

So, when LockMart’s top guy for the F-35 states that the program will go ahead with or without Australia, maybe it’s time to call his bluff. Australia and the Department of Spendthrift Defence can’t afford this gold plated and unproven wonder.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey