Why is that so many awe-inspiring feats of engineering are so hard to separate from deliberate mass death and misery?

President Obama’s recent visit to Canberra reminded me of when I first had this thought. I was doing an internship at the Royal Australian Air Force think tank, then the Aerospace Centre (now the Air Power Development Centre). The centre was located at Fairbairn airbase, just near the Canberra airport, and from my desk I could watch military aircraft take off and land. Disappointingly it was mainly logistical aircraft, not super sexy instruments of death like the F/A-18 or the F-111, but I could still appreciate lumbering beauty of heavy lift cargo carriers. Around the time of former US President George W. Bush’s 2003 visit I witnessed a particular highlight, this being the sight of a fully-laden Ilyushin Il-76 Russian heavy cargo transporter attempt a takeoff, the video of which has since become very popular, no doubt in part because of the air traffic controllers’ (ATC) commentary:


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It was the most magnificent spectacle of near-disaster. This in many ways is a terrible thing to marvel at, the prospect of a plane hurtling into the Piallago Ave, the main arterial road carrying cars driving to and from Queenbeyan or crashing into a mountain and scattering itself allover the surrounding suburbs of Canberra. But I, like the ATCs, had a distanciated and depersonalized viewpoint from which to view the potential human tragedy. I was caught up in the ‘phwoahh!!’ moment.

During my time at the Aerospace Centre I developed a love and appreciation of planes despite myself. In late-2002 Australia had controversially signed on as a level 3 partner in the development of the new F-35 strike fighter. The F-35 is a multi-role stealth combat fighter under development that is designed to suitable for use by all arms of the military (great documentary here). This significant financial commitment to the development of effectively excluded all other options such as updating its F/A-18 and F-111 fleet or procuring European planes. The taking part in the development of the F-35 would inevitably cost eye-wateringly large sums of money, and may yet even be cancelled entirely due to massive cost overruns and lateness (heaps of great coverage from fellow Crikey Blog ‘Plane Talking’).

Late-2003 at the Aerospace Centre water cooler discussion was dominated by debate over whether Australia should remain a partner in the development of the F-35. There I was, a young international relations student with a solid critical pedigree arguing that a short-range aircraft like the F-35 wouldn’t have the power projection to effectively defend the Northern air-sea gap. I was a big fan of the F-111. I loved that the F-111 had owned the cutting edge US fighter jets in war games and felt deeply that the structural weaknesses in their airframes could be upgraded, allowing us to maintain a capacity to strike Indonesia from our northern borders and maintain regional air superiority. The thing is, I actually disagreed with the implicit premise and underlying assumptions of having a fleet of advanced current generation fighter jets. I didn’t even believe there was a credible geostrategic threat from the north! I just liked the planes.

Planes for me are unambiguous symbols of what is great and what is bad about modernity. Commercial airliners have entirely changed how entire cross-sections of the world interact. The global middle class is now afforded the ability to travel the world with impunity. I mean, we complain about the cramped conditions on air travel but we are failing to appreciate the impressive feat that is the fact that we are able to travel to the other side of the world in less than a day. I recently booked a flight from Manchester to Melbourne late one afternoon leaving first thing the next morning, cheaply and on a good carrier. There I was less than 12 hours later, plugged in like a zombie to the in-flight entertainment and next thing I was back in Melbourne. Unfortunately, while we continue to entertain ourselves with the perks of frequent flying it is getting harder and harder to zone out and to distance oneself from the ugly flip-side of this upward mobility: namely our fear that various idiots will try to use them for the purpose of mass death.

With the rise of highly securitized border regimes it is harder to enjoy air travel and the majestic wonder that is planes. Invasive and inhibitive airport security makes it very hard to be oblivious to the dangers that are, according to our national security experts, attendant and consequent from international passenger air travel. Airports have become, if not quite carceral spaces, then certainly confessional spaces. One must render their behavior totally transparent to authorities. Each individual must perform a dressage of behavior getting themselves through metal detectors and ‘random’ security checks. It is important to be serious and not to joke around; security is no laughing matter. But then again don’t be too serious, like in a ideological or plot-like way, that will also cause a fuss.

This lamentable loss of our commercial passenger air travel innocence is not unconnected to real dark side of our plane-related modernity. Military planes like the F-35 are the most remarkable feats of engineering, they turbo jet thrust us at mach-10 speeds into a barely imagined future in the greatest tradition of high modernity. But these are trillion dollar (!!!) programs to create killing machines. The only way to enjoy the amazing and utterly futuristic marvel of military technology is turn off that part of you that asks ‘what are the human consequences of applying our greatest technical minds to designing finely honed instruments of death?’ ‘What happens when we deploy these instruments of death to best serve our so-called strategic interests?’ To enjoy the spectacle of these we must distanciate ourselves from the tragic consequences inherent to their design, submit fully to the ‘phwoahh!!’ impulse and ignore the side of us that is worried about the human consequences. Enjoying fighter jets is like enjoying jokes about a plane almost hitting a mountain, there’s a dehumanising distance required.

I’m not convinced our nation’s defence and security spending on projects like the F-35 is going to propel us into a better future. I think it is going to either going to be wasted or used to perpetuate misery and suffering of others, all the while making us as citizens feel like there is an ominous threat out there. It is genuinely sad that modern marvels come to that.

And don’t even get me started on drones.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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