Misguided Abbott strikes out on the JSF

Tony Abbott was badly misled in his purchase of the Joint Strike Fighter. Despite his noble intentions to maintain Australia's air superiority, his decision could have serious security consequences.

The Australian Prime Minister has seriously misled the Australian public on one of the most important decisions ever made by our government: the purchase of the Joint Strike Fighter or F-35.

This is not a claim I make lightly.

Tony Abbott did not deliberately tell untruths to the Australian public. I have a high opinion of Tony Abbott, but on this occasion he was badly misled, as was his cabinet.

Abbott stated that it was vital that Australia retains air superiority in the Asian region. Others may disagree with that view, but I believe he could not have made a truer statement. Air superiority is absolutely vital to the security of current and future generations of Australians. 

But then Abbott went on to claim that purchasing the JSF/F-35 would deliver Australia that superiority. 

If that was a correct statement, I would support Tony Abbott and the JSF purchase 100 per cent despite the cost of the aircraft, even though the JSF cost will be much higher than Abbott forecasts.

Unfortunately our Prime Minister is completely wrong.

The JSF/ F35 will not give us air superiority in the region. As a journalist I am the first to admit that I do not have the qualifications to contradict Abbott on his JSF-air superiority statement, but there is one man in the world who does have that qualification: the Commander of American Air Combat Command, General Mike Hostage.  

This is what General Hostage said last January. "The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22”.

So Australia is buying an aircraft that our Prime Minister genuinely but mistakenly believes will give our nation air superiority, while the American in charge of its operation is emphatic that Abbott is wrong. (General Hostage made his remarks some months earlier.)

Regular readers of my commentary (which is inspired by Peter Goon and the people behind our top defence analysts the Air Power Australia group) will know why Abbott and his cabinet were so badly misled.

Let me take you back into some history.

Under John Howard, Australia bought into a program that was designed to develop a so-called fifth generation aircraft for all the services, which would lower costs. China and a Russian/India consortium also moved to develop a fifth-generation aircraft, but their projects were not saddled with obligations to other services. 

They are now both developing aircraft that are larger, faster and can operate at much higher levels than the JSF. It will be easy for them to shoot down the JSF from above.  However, the JSF does have weapons systems that its advocates say are so superior to the Chinese and Russian aircraft  that it does not matter that the aircraft is not as good -- the JSF weapons systems will mean that it will not need to get into a dog fight.

But in the longer term, that’s just nonsense. You can be sure that new and better weapons will be developed on both sides, so what is an advantage in one year will not be an advantage in later years. What matters is the performance of the aircraft.

It so happens that the Americans do have a competitive aircraft: it’s called the F-22. The JSF was set to be a profit bonanza for its developer Lockheed Martin. It lobbied brilliantly to have production of the F-22 shut down so that all efforts would be concentrated on the JSF.

Those same lobbying skills were directed at Abbott and his cabinet so that in 2014, Australia decided to buy an aircraft that the cabinet thought would give Australia air superiority when it clearly will not.

So what is the strategy of General Hostage? 

He still wants the JSF to support the F-22, so he has backed the development of the JSF. But thanks to Lockheed's lobbying to stop production of the F-22, he has pitifully few F-22s, which is the aircraft that will make the US (but not Australia) competitive. 

Here are a few more words from General Hostage.

"The F-22, when it was produced, was flying with computers that were already so out of date you would not find them in a kid’s game console in somebody’s home gaming system. But I was forced to use that because that was the spec that was written by the acquisition process when I was going to buy the F-22.

"Then, I have to go through the [service life extension plan] and [cost and assessment program evaluation] efforts with airplanes to try to get modern technology into my legacy fleet. That is why the current upgrade programs to the F-22 I put easily as critical as my F-35 fleet. If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22. Because I got such a pitifully tiny fleet, I’ve got to ensure I will have every single one of those F-22s as capable as it possibly can be."

I will leave it to the conscience of Tony Abbott to decide how to correct his statements.

Here are a few other points.

  • Abbott has also been misled on the costs, but that would not matter if we actually secured air superiority.  Airpower believes that the real JSF cost is twice what Abbott has been told, and Airpower have been uncannily accurate on previous cost estimates. (I will leave readers to deduce what that means to other outlays and taxes.)
  • The construction of the aircraft is a mess and it may never deliver what it claims are achievable, albeit that those claims still make it uncompetitive (Hot air clouds the truth about the JSF, February 10).
  • There are only two people in the Parliament who have done the work required to discover the JSF mess: former ALP defence minister Senator John Faulkner and the WA member for Tangney, Dennis Jensen.

Jensen told Australians the truth after the JSF purchase announcement was made and slammed the deal. Jensen knows his leader has been misled. Jensen is a man that puts the national interest over party loyalty. A rare politician.

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