A defence lesson we should never forget

Defence planners have forgotten the lesson of Pearl Harbor and are putting Australian air power at unacceptable risk.

The lesson of the Pearl Harbor bombing on December 7, 1941, is one that should be imprinted on the minds of all defence planners.

The Americans have the Pearl Harbor lessons implanted in their DNA, but our defence planners appear to have forgotten what happened.

Because of this, they are not only going to weaken Australian defence, but are about to waste large sums of money.

At Pearl Harbor (and later in the Philippines), the Americans clustered their planes together so that they could be protected from saboteurs. As a result, the Japanese were able to destroy most of the 1941 US air force with a few bombs.

Back in the 1980s, Pearl Harbor was still very much in the mind of our defence chiefs and so when it came to establishing a forward air base (one that is vulnerable to attack from the north) at Tindal, near Katherine, they placed the planes in shelters around the airfield. That meant that if we were subject to a surprise attack, it would be much harder to destroy the fleet.

Now Tindal is being prepared for a new generation of aircraft and the original shelters are in need of upgrading. But guess what? Our planners have copied the old Pearl Harbor scheme and plan to spend more than $750 million on new facilities that group the aircraft together.

This will make administration and servicing easier and, of course, means that pilots can perform their daily duties closer to the mess. But it also makes it much easier to wipe out the fleet via a surprise attack.

At a Senate public works committee hearing in Canberra, the man responsible for adopting the Pearl Harbor model, Brigadier Darren Naumann, was asked about the strategy. The Brigadier responded that the Tindal single aircraft hangarettes were at the end of their economic life and the cost of repairing them would be the same as building a new hangar. Maintenance was inefficient in the current system because the tool shed was too far away.

The Brigadier went on, “I understand that at the time Tindal was developed there was certainly an understanding of the threat environment which required us to ensure that our jets were not lined up in a straight line. These days that threat is not as high, I understand. Now I cannot talk with authority as any form of security analyst.

“In the absence of such a threat that would cause us to be concerned about aircraft being lined up, it is a more efficient, whole-of-life outcome for us to develop the solution as we have proposed.”

Have you ever heard more nonsense than saying, “these days the threat is not as high”? By 2020, the countries to our north are likely to have air superiority over Australia because the joint strike fighter will be no match for the rival aircraft.

Even if the JSF developers performed a miracle, at best we will be equal to the aircraft to the north. I would suggest if the good Brigadier looks at what is happening around the globe and in our region, he will discover that the threat over the next two decades looks much worse than when Tindal’s hangarettes were built.

The Brigadier received detailed submissions from top people showing just how dangerous it was to copy the Pearl Harbor model, albeit easier to administer.

The Brigadier admits that it would cost about the same to fix the shelters as centralise the aircraft. But the Americans, mindful of what happened in Pearl Harbor (and Syria in the 1980s), are building Tindal style decentralised hangars in their facilities and they cost far less than we plan to spend on centralised facilities.

My friends tell me there are big savings if the shelters are repaired.

We have a serious problem in defence, which neither side of politics is prepared to recognise.

And for those who follow the tragic joint strike fighter saga, it is now four months since a JSF engine blew up seconds from the plane taking off for a test run.

Thankfully the pilot survived, but he would have almost certainly been killed had it happened a few seconds later when the plane was airborne. The engine designers still can’t work out what caused the explosion. 

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