The JSF or Joint Strike Fighter is a massively hyped, much-delayed defence project by which a single type of jet will supposedly defend the US and its NATO and ASEAN allies from baddies.

Think of a super duper X-box with wings. It has got everything. Or has it?

Contrary voices find it hard to be heard, but there are signs of bailouts in Europe and even in Washington DC.

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Two of those voices, defence analysts Peter Goon and Dr Carlo Kopp, were asked about the problems from the Australian point of view.

Is it true the JSF will destroy the Australian economy before it takes out its first enemy jet?

The JSF’s negative budgetary impact is a serious one, but less serious than the risks to national sovereignty should this aircraft become Australia’s principal combat aircraft. The most likely outcome of an air combat engagement between a JSF and any of the newer Russian-designed jets being actively marketed and exported into the region is a downed JSF and dead pilot.

Questions about “cost effectiveness” are always predicated on the asset in question being effective. The JSF won’t be effective in the type of combat environment we are seeing in the Pacrim. This is due to fundamental choices in the aircraft’s design made during the 1990s, further exacerbated by the poorly considered design changes made since 2002.

The JSF lacks the performance and agility to compete against modern fighters and air defences, relying completely on stealth. However, JSF stealth is, in most respects, inadequate compared to earlier US stealth designs, and is already seriously challenged by several recent Russian radar designs.

This is the context in which Australian taxpayers need to view what is the most bloated and costly single Defence acquisition in Australian history.

What have we paid for so far, and what comes next?

A conservative estimate to mid-2008 of what the direct cost of Australia’s involvement in the JSF program would be was about half a billion dollars.

What has Australia got for this expenditure? A whole bunch of frequent flyer miles for the DMO, Defence and parliamentary folks, plus gigabytes of power point presentations and brochure material, but not much more.

And DMO now wants us to buy two early JSFs to check them out before we buy them. This is like buying a type of car to road test to see if you want to buy it. There goes another half billion.

The only way to prove the operational capability of the JSF in Australia is to get Lockheed Martin to put up two to test in Darwin, in an environment that doesn’t exist in the US.

However, it is in the area of the associated opportunity costs where the real losses accrue and where the real damages are being done.

For example, the Systems Integration Capabilities of the facility at RAAF Base Amberley and its industry support base that were put in place by very smart people in Defence and Industry back in the late 1990s are now being gutted. The high-value work is now being earmarked to go overseas to places such as the Boeing facilities in St Louis, leaving Australians with only screw drivering, stores accounting and shipping to do.

The (lost) opportunity costs associated with Australia’s involvement with the JSF program would be measured in the billions of dollars — most of which has gone or is going offshore.

Then there are the corporate carcasses, mostly SMEs across the Australian industrial landscape, which will have to be buried due to the misadventures resulting from their involvement, encouraged by the DMO, Defence and Department of Industry & Trade, with the JSF program. The signs of such are already visible with some Australian companies that did the hard yards, the research, development, recruitment, training and associated hoop jumping plus the up-front investment to win early work in the JSF program on the promise of large follow-on contracts, only to find such contracts now going to bidders from countries with either much lower or subsidised labour rates.

Will it work?

The short answer is no.

For any combat aircraft to “work” it must first be capable of staying alive in the type of combat environment it can be expected to encounter, and second be capable of performing its intended mission effectively, be it killing other aircraft or surface targets such as  warships or ground forces. The third consideration is that of how difficult the aircraft is to operate, in terms of basing needs, aerial refuelling needs and supporting assets.

The JSF is non-viable in all three respects, and on current projections more expensive to buy and support operationally than the superior F-22A, which is at least three times more capable than the JSF will ever be.

The JSF is a case study in bad project definition, in many areas poor engineering design, especially at the management level, resulting in a poor implementation of what was a bad idea in the first place.

So you’re saying successive governments have been snowed?

Since 2002 the Canberra DoD bureaucracy and senior leadership group have conducted an intensive and sustained campaign to market this aircraft to parliamentarians on both sides of Australian politics.

Rather than “keeping the supplier honest”, our Defence bureaucracy has become, to all intents and purposes, a proxy marketing office representing the agendas of the supplier camp and JSF proponents out of the United States.

This role reversal, which throws out decades of good governance practice, has been especially damaging since only a handful of parliamentarians have actually understood what is happening.

This problem is exacerbated by pervasive technical and professional de-skilling through the bureaucracy, resulting in the organisation not understanding the manifold technical and management problems, with which the design and the program are riddled.

Like many bureaucracies, which are prone to “shoot at messengers bearing unwelcome news”, the Russell Offices bureaucracy has been sliding into this abyss at an ever-increasing speed, unable to admit to itself that it blundered in the first place by selling the program to the Howard government in 2002.

Aren’t we seeing signs of alarm already in the US and Europe?

The Danes have just deferred their choice of fighter aircraft, not long after the Dutch almost fractured their governing coalition over the program. Reports from the UK are now saying that Britain will cut the number of JSFs it procures to a third the number intended originally.

In the United States, the latest Pentagon Joint Estimate Team report has confirmed what most analysts with good knowledge of the program predicted a long time ago — the program will require upwards of another $US17 billion ($A18.7 billion) and a deep restructure to produce an aircraft that meets the now-obsolete and strategically irrelevant operational requirement.

The Obama Administration’s independent advice is that the JSF is inappropriate for use against China and that the USAF purchase should be halved.

The material reality is that the JSF has been a “failed project”, in technical terms, for some time now, kept on life support by the Rumsfeld and now OSD (Office of the Secretary for Defense), Gates with problems hidden behind an incessant barrage of often very effective public relations propaganda.

The problem with this self-destructive bureaucratic behaviour is that it involves real and strategically dangerous losses in military capability at unprecedented costs to taxpayers.

OK, it’s f-cked. What do we do now?

First, we collectively have to realise that Australia is not alone in this predicament. The same Western global disease that gave us the GFC, the failures in corporate governance in companies such as Enron and HiH, and the meltdowns in the local and international insurance industry, is at the root of what has come to be known as the Just So Flawed (JSF) program.

Since our PM, Kevin Rudd, and his government have worked hard to get Australia recognised on the international stage as a progressive and stable contributor to the management of world events, Australia is well placed to lead the rest of the world away from this abyss.

For ourselves, since the US gave Australia and the World the GFC and since Australian blood continues to be shed in support of the US campaign against terrorism, most if not all Australians would think it only appropriate that the US not only agrees but offers to provide to Australia with the means for getting the best air combat capability it can, at the most cost-effective price.

At a unit price somewhat less than that for the JSF and being at least three times more capable than is claimed for the JSF, thus requiring fewer aircraft to be procured, the F-22A Raptor is the logical choice.

Being a member of such an exclusive club and operating about 25% of the world fleet would create unique opportunities for Australia and its defence industry — far more powerful and effective than from being one of many also-rans within a failed, collapsing program that is just so fraught with a total indifference to reality.

As prudent risk managers, we should not put all our eggs in one basket, as was intended with the JSF. To this end, Australia needs a combat strike aircraft that complements the F-22 Raptor while satisfying the Australian requirements of extreme range, long endurance and large payloads as well as having the ability to match the Raptor’s high speed. Australia already has such an aircraft — the F-111.

Now, before naysayers such as CDF Angus Houston, CEO-DMO Steve Gumley, CAF Mark Binskin or the Lockheed Martin-funded Williams Foundation make noises about the early retirement of the F-111 having gone too far, we should recall a few salient points. First, they are the people who have failed to extricate us from this mess in the first place. Secondly, the RAAF stood up the F-4Es Phantom in six months when delivery of the F-111s was delayed. Australian industry is more than capable of supporting, maintaining and evolving the F-111 at costs far less than what Angus as well as Steve’s DMO people have been required to claim. Even the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) says so.

If Angus, Mark and Steve aren’t able or, more likely, don’t want to muster the means for keeping the F-111s flying and evolving them with the capabilities to complement Australia’s and America’s F-22A Raptors (things that neither the Super Hornets nor the JSF would be able to do), then stand aside, gentlemen, before you do any more damage.

There are plenty of Australians with the background, knowledge, experience, and expertise along with the right attitudes who would be prepared to step up to the plate and make this happen.

And what about for the Super Hornet buy or “Nelson’s folly”, which most experts, including the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, consider non-viable?

Either keep them as very expensive flight trainers, which is about all they would be good for in the regional context or, better still, sell/trade them back to the US Navy — a win/win since they are the only remotely usable aircraft that will be able to fill the parking spaces on top of their aircraft carriers for the foreseeable future.

This is a “call to arms”. We need to have an air power dominance capability that matches our position as a supplier of valued resources. Protect it, or lose it.

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I subscribe to Crikey because I believe in a free, open and independent media where news and opinions can be published that I can both agree with and be challenged by.

As a Crikey subscriber I always feel more informed and able to think more critically about issues and current affairs – even when they don’t always reflect my own political viewpoint or lived experience.

Jess
Singapore

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