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Jan 10, 2011

Joint Strike Fighter latest puts our defence planning under siege

Australia, in the JSF, has no answers. Just a painfully expensive toy that is years late in development, and already below the specifications of rivals that appear closer to entering operatons.

The latest signal that the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program is in even more trouble came from soon-to-resign US Defence secretary Robert Gates, in an interview given on his way to his current talks in Beijing.

China, Gates said, has “the potential to put some of our capabilities at risk”.

His comments were almost entirely directed at the sudden, unpredicted, early appearance of China’s J-20 answer to the JSF, less than a year after Russia flew its response, in the PAK-FA.

The evasive language of the Gates interview puts Canberra on further notice that the centerpiece of Australian defence planning is under siege.

And no doubt makes for a jolly time in the discussions now going on between himself and the China leadership cadre.

Over the holiday season Gates has announced that the US will put one model of the JSF, with short take-off and landing capabilities, on probation. It’s not the model on which Australia hangs its future air superiority, but it erodes the battered finances of the entire program.

He also foreshadowed reductions in the US order for the other models, thus risking a huge increase in unit cost, and announced more orders for FA 18 Super Hornets to cover delivery short falls, as did Australia, last year.

In a strategic environment that is getting J-20s and the PAK-FA faster than Australia will get “real” JSFs, the Super Hornets are as useful as more horses for the Polish Cavalry.

As are the JSFs, once they meet specifications, when confronted by aircraft that will fly higher and further and faster.

The JSF has a mission profile invented in the ’90s that is designed to fail in the current decade.

Gates’ reference to doubts about the stealth characteristics of the J-20 are disingenuous. If it can kill our JSFs before they even know they are being hunted it hardly matters if they are less than invisible by the time they get to point where the could have been engaged.

The sleeper issue for the Pentagon, which America’s US Air Force Association tried to awaken last year, is a Chinese investment in surface to air missile defences that denies its air space to intruding military aircraft.

It is reasonable to conclude from Gates’ comments about the need to pay more attention to China that one of its immediate objectives has been achieved.

China owns enough US government debt to hurt, and it has a rapidly developing technology base to challenge both its trading and military interests.  This includes a proven capability to destroy satellites in orbit, intercontinental nuclear missiles, ground based missile defences and now a large and potentially troubling fight and attack design.

Australia, in the JSF, has no answers. Just a painfully expensive toy that is years late in development, and already below the specifications of rivals that appear closer to entering operations.

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59 comments

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59 thoughts on “Joint Strike Fighter latest puts our defence planning under siege

  1. Greg Angelo

    It would seem to be much more sensible for Australia to approach the Chinese/Russians/Indians to purchase equipment from them rather than the US. . There could even be some strategic advantage in getting first rate Chinese aircraft as it would appear that the Chinese economy will dominate the world within 20 years. Aerospace developments in China and India are significant, and Russia still holds a significant technological capacity in fighter aircraft. Due to the massive overspending within the American economy, the US will have to cut back on defence expenditure, resulting in even higher cost per unit of equipment delivery on current designs under development. Our defence planners should be factoring in the decline of the US economy into our long term defence planning.

  2. freecountry

    The central consideration of the JSF project is to control costs. Remember that one of the several reasons the USSR toppled was its diversion of economic resources into unaffordable military spending to keep up with the Americans. NATO defeated the USSR not by out-shooting it or out-spying it, but by out-spending it. A lesson not lost on the Chinese.

  3. Tom F

    That sounds good in theory; but our entire electronics setup (IT, Comms, physical hardware) is build around US standards and US equipment. China and Russia use very different systems, and certainly wouldn’t be willing to provide us with late-generation infrastructure that their newest systems are using. Since the electronics and software is what actually defines them as a 5th generation fighter, tearing out the innards and replacing them is not plausible – it’d take as long again as developing the JSF in the first place.

    Operating fighters as stand-alone systems, cut off from the rest of our military infrastructure would be ludicrously dangerous and ineffective in a combat environment; and I’m not entirely sure if it would even be possible, given their reliance on ground, long-range aerial and satellite-based guidance and targetting.

    The US, a long-standing ally, does sell Australia (fairly) cutting edge equipment; but the downside is that we’re sucked into US procurement debacles like the JSF that neither we nor they can really afford.

    If we want to stop buying US armaments, it will take a massive investment to switch over to a Russian or Chinese system (European systems are generally designed to work with NATO/US systems, but they don’t have a 5th gen fighter under construction that I’m aware of – I think a number of Eurozone countries had JSFs on order, too.)

  4. Philip Amos

    For me, Ben’s column raises several important questions:
    – Are the JU-20 and PAK-FA superior to the JSF? How do we know? Especially re the JU-20 given it’s surprise recent appearance?
    – How do the Chinese and Russians produce a jet superior to the JSF in a shorter period? China steals a large amount of IP in other industries, is this the case here? (The jet in the video appears very similar in many ways to the F22/F35)
    – If the Chinese and Russian military-industrial complex is now superior to the American/Allies how do we react?

    Perhaps Ben could address some of these questions in future columns.

  5. Philip Amos

    One more question:
    – Why won’t the Chinese and Russians have similar development challenges as the JSF? I think this is a key question. We are critical of Australian/US defence procurements that fail to meet their timetable for delivery on almost every occasion, why would we take the Chinese on face value when they promise an in-service date for the JU-20 of 2015 or 2017?

  6. Ben Sandilands

    A good suggestion, even though I focus more on the procurement process and the failure of public administration than the technical analysis. I have struggled in the case of the JSF to find a clear countervailing voice to the criticisms made of it, since the responses generally resemble brand rage on the part of supporters than a chapter and verse work through of the long record of deceptive or evasive or just pain wrong statements made on its behalf at that political or administrative level.

    And I’m embarrassed to admit to a typo that escaped.*** IT IS A J-20. *** Not a JU or Junkers museum piece!

  7. Tim nash

    I find the reactions from the Americans about the JU-20 a little weird, lets face it China is a leader in manufacturing for quite some time.

    It’s really not that surprising that they invented a better tactical fighter jet/

    Is America supposed to just be unquestioned dominant military force for eternity?

    Also I don’t think Australia should be picky where we get our military equipment from, if china has a better jet..get the jet from china that’s..if they will sell it to us anyways.

    -BTW why don’t journalists just come out and say ‘in a future possible confict with China’, its like everyone is dancing around actually saying it.

  8. James Hunter

    Make one wonder if we should not do a deal with Russia for the Pak FA. Fitted with British , French or Israeli electronics . Mind you reports on the new gen Russian Radars and of bore sights ? One thing if we bought Russian we would be assured of parts and support no matter what situation we were in. The usa by comparison have a history of being Indian Givers. Spares and support dry up if you want to use “their” toys in places they object to.
    But the Pak FA has a massively powerful radar, supercruise engine capability and very long range on internal fuel. all the things the F35 should have had but doesnt.
    Time Australia bought its Military equipment where its needs are best met rather then where the USA tells us to.

  9. jeffb

    No mention that the type Australia is buying has exceeded its 2010 test flight target and is proceeding satisfactorily? Thats what 500+ test flights to … zero J-20 flights?

    No mention that due to the STOVL version effectively being put on hold for 2 years the type Australia is buying has moved to the front of the production line?

    People are trying to make a comparison between an open project under constant media scrutiny and a handful of pictures on the internet.

    I’m curious Ben, besides APA who have you talked to about the F35? Crikey has had quality defence writers do articles for it in the past, and there plenty of real defence academics out there without having to ask CS grads for their opinions.

  10. TheEvilOne

    @Phillip Amos

    “- Why won’t the Chinese and Russians have similar development challenges as the JSF? I think this is a key question.”

    What you are missing is the amount of corruption in the US defense procurement industry. The American war machine’s main purpose has become creating handsome profits for Defense contractors and financial investors in them. These excess profits are a drain on the efficiency of the industry to develop efficient cost effective weapons. I have no doubt that both Russia and China have similar problems but the level of corruption is lower because the main purpose of Russia’s and China’s defense industries is to produce weapons that can compete with the products of the American defense industry while both countries have lesser financial resourses to the Americans.

    I have no doubt that when China becomes the world’s sole superpower the same corruption will set in, the miltary will be captured by the defense industry vested interests and corruption in procurement will sap its military effectiveness. The American Empire is already in its death throes, the Chinese Empire has to rise before it in its turn is destroyed by the excessive rents taken by its ruling oligarchs.

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