The firing in the over-hyped and dismally under-performing Joint Strike Fighter F-35 project has started in Washington DC and needs to spread quickly to Canberra before more damage is done to Australia’s defence interests.

Defence Minister John Faulkner was captured by his defence advisers last year when he committed late in November to the $3.2 billion purchase of 14 early production F-35s from 2014 for alleged evaluation purposes, which had the effect of handcuffing Australia to an ultimate purchase of 100 of the jets at a cost of at least $16 billion.

Last week President Obama’s new appointee as US Director of Operational Test & Evaluation in defence matters, Mike Gilmore,  tore into the project for a wide range of failures  and was especially scathing of status of the low rate initial production jets Faulkner had so strongly endorsed.

This was followed yesterday by the firing of the head of the project by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and the withholding of $690 million in progress payments to the lead contractor Lockheed Martin for a blindly obvious lack of progress, as reported at length in Plane Talking.

Today, while Faulkner’s predecessor, Joel Fitzgibbon, is fighting off allegations that he was being groomed as a “Chinese agent” with undisclosed cash gifts of $150,000, the minister has been made to look a complete fool by his advisers, who behaved like the agents of the project rather than the government.

The essential problem for defence, and the Rudd Government, is that the Howard Government encouraged the uncritical endorsement of whatever expensive “toy” the GWB administration wanted  it to buy.

However, the  Obama Administration faces the reality of a broken US economy, a set of flawed big ticket projects such as the Constellation moon base project, which was cancelled in its budget package on Monday, and a JSF that the US Navy is already expressing serious doubts about, and which has abjectly failed to progress.

That new reality is a huge problem for Canberra, as well as other Western bloc nations who have  signed up for the super-duper X-box with wings-hype that surrounds the JSF, and committed their future air superiority to its success.

Another victim of the scandal could be Defence Secretary Gates himself, who until the Gilmore audit review, was a fully credentialed believer in the JSF.  The abrupt change of stance from Gates may prove too late, as the fallout in terms of future defence implications and relations with JSF partners among allies settles over Capitol Hill.

For Faulkner, the administrative problem is an incompetent defence procurement process and a set of senior defence appointees who preside over a situation where Australia struggles to keep a single Collins class submarine in a service ready state.

This is the same defence establishment that allowed the misuse of RAN ships by the disgraced Firepower miracle fuel additive company to launch the 2006 season of its Sydney Kings basketball team. It is, to put it kindly, populated by susceptible gormless fools who proved more than a match for Faulkner when it came to his enthusiastic and completely misinformed endorsement of early model JSFs.

The geopolitical element of the JSF situation is less funny.

The defence and foreign affairs establishments in Canberra  often emphasise the success of Australian foreign policy with its potential enemies in Asia, and argue that there is no “immediate threat”.

But the respect enjoyed by Australia is based on respect for its power. As the analysts at the Airpower Australia think tank have often pointed out, the basis of that respect has been trashed by the premature retirement of our F-111s and other errors, which will leave the country with seriously diminished air-power capabilities from 2015 onwards.

Indonesia doesn’t have a air force that can out-fire Australia’s today. But from 2015, even with a token force of say 10 Sukhoi SU-30 jets in Jakarta’s arsenal, Australia faces an excessive loss rate in aerial encounters that would extinguish its capabilities very rapidly.

Last week the Russian long-range stealth platform, the T-50 made its first flight. Even assuming it takes 7-8 years to achieved operational capability, a timeframe largely dictated by a very ambitious plan using a very advanced engine design, the T-50 will, based on  the Gilmore report, achieve deployment ahead of the JSF, and on current specifications, destroy it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey