Crikey Clarifier

Apr 23, 2014

Crikey Clarifier: are the F-35s a bunch of white (flying) elephants?

Why are spending $12 billion on military planes with a history of faults? Andrew Davies, a senior defence analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, explains.

Today's announcement that the government is going to spend more than $12 billion on F-35 Joint Strike Fighters has already caused a lot of head scratching in this the "age of austerity". And that's fair enough -- every dollar the government spends on defence isn't available for anything else the punters might want. Government is all about prioritising policy and how it collects and spends its resources. So even if you'd rather have another hospital or school, it's worth understanding the reasoning behind this sort of decision. Here are a few answers to questions I've been getting all day (and for the last few years) ... Aren't prices of the Joint Strike Fighter still climbing? Actually, no. The price is now trending downwards, and the last couple of production batches have come in at lower prices than United States budget estimates. That said, the F-35 was initially sold as a cut-price fighter for the 21st century, which it isn't. It continues the trend of every generation of fighter aircraft being significantly more expensive than the previous one. Do these things work? I hear that the F-35's development continues to be a problem ... This is partly true. The program to develop the aircraft was a bit of a shocker in its early years. Things are much better now, but a few challenges remain, not least of which being the software required to make it work as designed. The major overhaul of the program, which began in 2010, produced a timetable that’s mostly holding -- certainly far better than previous performance. If it's not ready, why do we need to decide now? Given that the air force's Hornet strike fighters reach the end of their life not long after 2020, the options are pretty limited. We could buy a less capable (but more technically mature) alternative, or even decide that we don't need a fast-jet air force. The Kiwis took the latter option, but their local maps don't look like our local maps, so that was always an unlikely position for an Australian government to take. In any case, the decision to approve the purchase of F-35s doesn't commit us just yet. Contract signature could still be two years away. By then the aircraft should be entering service with US forces, and we should be much better placed to make an assessment. Professionals in the military are still concerned about the performance of the aircraft ... In talks with the USAF and RAAF, the feedback I get about the performance of the F-35 is overwhelmingly positive. If anything, the problem is that enthusiasm from the services that will employ the F-35 is so strong that it’s difficult for them to hear the case for lower-cost but less capable options. Is this about sucking up to the US? There's certainly a strong alliance angle to this purchase. Backing away from the JSF would certainly cause some ripples in Washington. And we're following the path of other US allies in the form of the UK, Japan and Korea in deciding to go with the F-35. Won't Chinese and Russian aircraft eat the F-35 for breakfast? There's a few very vocal critics of the F-35 who claim that the F-35 would be a sitting duck for what they assess to be much more capable aircraft appearing in Russia and China these days. I don't buy that -- this would have to be the biggest technical error of all time on the behalf of the US and those customer countries (including Singapore, Israel and several European nations) who collectively represent some of the savviest buyers of military hardware around. And in any case, we're not going to mortgage our defence capability to Russia or China, so buying the best Western fighter makes sense. (Our recent report discusses these issues in more detail.) *Disclosure: Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor on the F-35 program, is a corporate sponsor of ASPI

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20 thoughts on “Crikey Clarifier: are the F-35s a bunch of white (flying) elephants?

  1. klewso

    Actions speak louder than words …. about Joe Shonkey’s “economic crisis”.

  2. paddy

    I’m afraid the most telling sentence in this article, is the one that follows the* at the bottom of the page.

  3. tim readfern

    “, but their local maps don’t look like our local maps, so that was always an unlikely position for an Australian government to take.”

    um, is he implying Indonesia is a direct military threat or something?

  4. Graeski

    At the rate we’re selling off the country, by the time the F-35 comes on stream it won’t be ours to defend anymore.

    We should save the $12 billion.

  5. ilolatu

    $12 billion blow job.

  6. moi aussie

    Excuse me for asking the obvious, but given this disclaimer:
    *Disclosure: Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor on the F-35 program, is a corporate sponsor of ASPI

    WHY is Crikey choosing this person and ASPI as an “explainer” of what is going on with this purchase……..? I guess this means Crikey couldn’t find an expert to explain such stuff to us ordinary newspaper readers who is not sponsored by the seller of these planes??
    yours sincerely,
    Moi Aussie

  7. Itsarort

    The JSF costs 160 million a piece (prob 200 by 2018). With a glide ratio equivalent to that of a small asteroid, it seems like a lot of eggs in one basket. And for those who live in the Newcastle/Hunter area, lets hope that engine failures are minimal…

  8. fractious

    @ moi aussie #6, why indeed. Search Ben Sandilands’ Plane Talking blog for JSF and you’ll find a rather divergent view.

  9. TheFamousEccles

    Sorry Andrew Davies, but the disclosure statement at the bottom of this piece leads me disregard most of what you have stated. Aside from your first sentence in the “Sucking up to America” part.

  10. Glen Laslett

    Flying white elephants? I’m embarrassed to say that I’m old enough to remember exactly the same debate erupting around the F-111s during their procurement phase. As it turns out, they were a wonderful strategic purchase. The US consistently produces high quality military hardware. It’s very unlikely that they’d compromise their capabilities by producing and deploying a lame duck.

    I doubt that I’ll be around for the next purchase of this type, but (if I was) I wouldn’t be surprised to encounter the “flying white elephant” again in the press.

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