The Australian government has approved $3.2 billion for the purchase of 14 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters ( JSF). Included in this is a test aircraft that will be delivered in the US in 2014 to take part in test and training activities.

If ignorance is bliss, the people who advised Australia’s defence minister, John Faulkner, on the status of the F-35 program, must be quite happy. At a time where there is near doldrums in the F-35 program development progress, Australia takes the big leap. Early in the press release for this announcement, Faulkner points towards the recent Defence white paper for inspiration of this gamble. The white paper if anything is a sham that doesn’t describe any defence goals for Australia very well. At best the white paper is a poorly thought-out product displayed as a rubber-stamp for dysfunctional thinking.

So what does the F-35 program have in store? No one really knows. In a big meeting called for DOD officials and industry this last weekend to look at how to fix Humpty Dumpty, Lockheed Martin and the gone-native US Department of Defense F-35 program office were desperately trying to convince DOD’s top acquisition man, Ashton Carter, that everything is OK, when certainly the existing evidence shows otherwise.

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LM and the DOD F-35 program office are trying to spin the yarn that a recent negative joint estimates team report that predicts increased costs of several billion dollars and years added to the F-35 development effort are a “worst-case’ scenario. The problem with this is that given the limited scope of the JET team report (timeframe), it could represent a best-case for all anyone knows.

Carter, who himself is trying to get a grasp on all of this, falls back on Gates-isms when looking how to address the problems in the F-35 program development; for example, the glacial pace of flight testing. Carter’s inspirational words were that everyone should consider an 80% solution to move forward towards fixing things. Brilliant. Eighty per cent of what?

Consider that in Australia, management of Defence programs has been historically bad. In the general public, it is a running joke that most everyone accepts. It took forever for Australia to ditch the infamous Sea Sprite helicopter debacle at a cost of $1 billion. Australia’s submarine program is a disaster and if that isn’t bad enough, if the F-35 program goes bad, the Australian taxpayer is looking at record-breaking losses.

Consider what Australia has been promised about F-35 “affordability” for years. When you are paying around $228 million each to stand up 14 aircraft, there is a huge disconnect.

  • “It’s about $37 million for the CTOL aircraft, which is the air force variant.” — Colonel Dwyer Dennis, US JSF Program Office brief to Australian journalists, 2002
  • “… $US40 million dollars  . ” — Senate Estimates/Media Air Commodore John Harvey, AM Angus Houston, Mick Roche, USDM, 2003
  • ” … $US45 million in 2002 dollars .” — JSCFADT/Senate Estimates, Air Commodore John Harvey, Mick Roche, USDM, 2003/2004
  • “… average unit recurring flyaway cost of the JSF will be around US$48 million, in 2002 dollars . ” — Senate Estimates/Press Club Briefing, Air Commodore John Harvey, 2006
  • “… the JSF Price (for Australia) — $US55 million average for our aircraft …  in 2006 dollars.” — Senate Estimates/Media AVM John Harvey ACM Angus Houston, November 2006
  • “… DMO is budgeting around $A131 million in 2005 dollars as the unit procurement cost for the JSF.” — AVM John Harvey Briefing, Office of the Minister for Defence, May 2007
  • “There are 108 different cost figures for the JSF that I am working with and each of them is correct.” — Dr Steve Gumley, CEO of the DMO, September/October 2007
  • “…  I would be surprised if the JSF cost us any more than $A75 million … in 2008 dollars at an exchange rate of 0.92.” — JSCFADT Dr Steve Gumley, CEO DMO, July 2008
  • “… Dr Gumley’s evidence on the cost of the JSF was for the average unit recurring flyaway cost for the Australian buy of 100 aircraft.” — JSCFADT/Media AVM John Harvey, August 2008
  • “Confirmed previous advice i.e. $A75 million in 2008 dollars at an exchange rate of 0.92.” — JSCFADT Dr Steve Gumley, CEO of the DMO, September 2009
  • “… about $77 million per copy.”– Robert Gates, US Secretary of Defense, February 2008.

And yes there are spares and support and facilities to account for. However, what we have above are blatant attempts to mislead elected officials that somehow the F-35 is “affordable” when it has not proved any such thing. As this goes to press, is now reporting, “senior Pentagon officials are considering a one-year extension of the Joint Strike Fighter’s development schedule, a move that would allow Defense Department leaders to recalibrate the program and postpone a looming cost breach that could have dramatic implications for the military’s largest procurement effort.”

So, both major Australian political parties, in mortal fear of looking “weak on defence”, have just burdened the Australian public with an expensive and unproven aircraft. In any other setting, this would be known as theft by trick or device. Australians are likely to wake up some day and discover the inspiration for all of this wasn’t the Defence white paper, but Bernard Madoff.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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