“I believe that some of the adverse publicity surrounding the JSF program has been misguided and unfounded.” So stated the The Hon. Greg Combet MP Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement in a 24 November speech at the Australian Defence College.

“Misguided and unfounded”? A closer look at the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program shows otherwise.

Since the end of the Cold War, US aerospace program management as a whole has shown severe stress when it comes to complex projects. Boeing’s great white hope of next generation airliners, the 787, is at risk of not being able to deliver. A recent Airbus industrial intelligence brief on this project opines that there are severe problems with the 787.

While it is not a defence program, it does share a lot of the symptoms of ignoring risk that comes back to bite hard as Boeing’s troubled military program known as the Wedgetail has experienced. More so, Boeing is pulling its hair out, having set up factories all over the world to create parts for the 787. It isn’t working out very well and a similar method is being used for the supply and manufacturing of the Lockheed Martin F-35.

Defence has claimed they want the F-35 as the next combat aircraft for the RAAF. Except exactly what Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and Mr Combet are worried about, price and schedule, are real risks and not just a minor issue to consider before signing on the dotted line after a rubber-stamp Defence White Paper is published in 2009. Earlier this year the head of the DMO, Mr Gumley, stated that the F-35 could be had for $75 million each. Later, after some haggling between politicians and defence in various Canberra hearings, it was admitted that the cost Australia would pay for each aircraft could be much more. How much? They really don’t know.

Recently, the maker of the aircraft crowed about a super low price for Norway’s F-35 when that country announced it would select the jet for its air force in the coming years. The fine print in this sales effort shows something different. For the super low price, all the 9 country members of the F-35 program which includes Australia, have to start ordering to a certain number — or the price goes up. There may be further price increases as the F-35 is still early in development. One industry source states the F-35 could cost the Norwegian taxpayer the equivalent of between $US161 to $US243 million for each aircraft.

Why does Combet believe criticism of this high risk program is “misguided and unfounded”? Maybe it is time the Australian National Audit Office gets more involved to look at all of the risks surrounding procurement of the F-35. Then we might see if that ludefisk-like smell is that of “misguided and unfounded” criticism or just the government in its all-knowing attitude telling the taxpayer to sit down, shut-up and listen to their betters.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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