Flying into a defence disaster

As the Joint Strike Fighter continues to poke holes in our defence budget, the US appears to be edging closer to abandoning it and leaving Australia's air force dangerously exposed.

In the next few months, an event more dramatic for Australia than the export of uranium to India and one ranking alongside the European crisis looks like it will hit our country – the United States is getting closer and closer to abandoning the Joint Strike Fighter. If they do abandon what was to be our biggest defence purchase it will not only cost around 250,000 jobs around the world (including 5,000 to 10,000 in Australia) but it will also lock in Russian and Chinese air superiority in our region for the foreseeable future.

The Australian Department of Defence has conducted one of the biggest ‘snow jobs’ ever attempted on most Australian media so there has been little commentary warning of the looming JSF disaster. However, step-by-step the whole JSF program is unravelling.

The eurozone crisis was caused because Europe consistently denied that its banks and countries like Greece had a problem. Australia has undergone the same process of denial with the JSF, which has not only ballooned in cost and been hit by delays, but can’t compete against the equivalent Russian and Chinese aircraft. If we face up to the problem, however, there is a solution that will keep most of the jobs and retain US air superiority in the region.

For the last four years in Business Spectator, and for a similar time before that in The Australian, I have been warning of the looming JSF problems. I am clearly not an expert on jet fighters but I came to realise that the Airpower Australia analytical group had a better understanding of the looming JSF disaster than the top defence chiefs. Events are now proving Airpower right.

Last year, the US appointed Vice Admiral David Venlet to take charge of the JSF program, which was experiencing enormous cost blowouts and delays. Now, as 2011 ends, he makes an incredible statement: "I have the duty to navigate this program through concurrency. I don't have the luxury to stand on the pulpit and criticise and say how much I dislike it and wish we didn't have it.

"My duty is to help us navigate through it."

In other words, the JSF is a program that should not have been undertaken in its present form but it’s Venlet’s job to proceed with it.

In his interview with the AOL defence newsletter he makes the astounding revelation that Fatigue testing and analysis are turning up so many potential cracks and "hot spots" in the Joint Strike Fighter's airframe that the production rate of the JSF (also called the F-35) should be slowed further over the next few years.

"The analysed hot spots that have arisen in the last 12 months or so in the program have surprised us at the amount of change and at the cost,” Venlet says. "Most of them are little ones, but when you bundle them all up and package in the airplane and how hard they are to get at after you buy the jet, the cost burden of that is what sucks the wind out of your lungs.

"I believe it's wise to sort of temper production for a while here until we get some of these heavy years of learning under our belt and get that managed right. And then when we've got most of that known and we've got the management of the change activity better in hand, then we will be in a better position to ramp up production."

The AOL defence newsletter says that the JSF program was originally structured with a high rate of concurrency – building production model aircraft while finishing ground and flight testing – that assumed less change than is proving necessary.

"Fundamentally, that was a miscalculation," Venlet said. "You'd like to take the keys to your shiny new jet and give it to the fleet with all the capability and all the service life they want. What we're doing is, we're taking the keys to the shiny new jet, giving it to the fleet and saying, 'Give me that jet back in the first year. I've got to go take it up to this depot for a couple of months and tear into it and put in some structural mods, because if I don't, we're not going to be able to fly it more than a couple, three, four, five years.' That's what concurrency is doing to us."

To add to the JSF woes, there have been two developers of JSF engines – Pratt and Whitney and GE and Rolls Royce. GE and Rolls Royce were ahead of Pratt and Whitney but lost funding at the start of this year. Because GE and Rolls believed that they were so far ahead, they were confident they would be recalled. Accordingly, they continued to develop their engines at their own cost but after the Venlet statement they pulled out.

One day Australia may wake up and find the JSF has been cancelled by the US and we will have nowhere to go. The JSF got into trouble because its design required catering for too many applications. Nevertheless, wonderful work has been undertaken on systems for the JSF. The US has a magnificent aircraft – the F22 – where production has been halted to concentrate on the JSF. The two programs should be merged and the JSF systems incorporated into the F22. That would protect jobs and enable the US to maintain air superiority in the region. But the F22 project is caught in a mire of politics. We need to help America through those political problems.

All Australian Air Force personnel (outside the top brass) fear we will go for the Hornets when the JSF is abandoned. The JSF will be inferior to the equivalent Russian and Chinese aircraft now coming off the production line. The Hornets are a joke against these aircraft.

These are important times for our nation’s defence.

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