Stephen Smith's 11th-hour flight option

Australia's current JSF plans will see it lose autonomy of its own airspace by 2025, but there is an answer to Stephen Smith's dilemma if he's willing to put politics aside.

The Australian's foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, has revealed for the first time the choice Australian defence chiefs plan to put before Defence Minister Stephen Smith in a few months.

Smith will be asked to decide whether to buy more F-18 Super Hornets or buy the F-35 – the so-called the Joint Strike Fighter.

Confirming Sheridan’s disclosure, Australian defence officials presented a similar choice to a briefing at the weekend Avalon airshow.

Sheridan and the defence officials gave the same answer to that specific question: If it’s a choice between the Hornet and the JSF, Australia must buy the JSF because the Hornet has limited use in modern warfare.

If only life was so simple. 

When Australia’s defence minister is presented with the stark choice of buying the Hornet or buying the JSF, Smith needs to ask another and more important question. 

Indonesia plans to buy an incredible 180 of the Russian/Indian Sukhoi fighters, almost certainly including the T-50 PAK-FA T-50 and Su-35S. So the question is not whether the JSF is better than the outdated Hornet, but whether it is better than Indonesia’s Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA T-50 and Su-35S.

Smith should, of course, first ask defence chiefs for an answer but he needs to remember that the answer will come from officials in both Australia and the US who have staked their careers on the JSF. They can only give one answer. 

Smith must get opinions from defence experts outside the US and Australian defence officials. There are plenty of people to go and see. Smith will soon discover that the latest defence slogan – 'first look, first shoot, first kill' – works against the outmoded Hornet but not against the Sukhoi. The Sukhoi is just too good.

For example, the JSF can operate effectively only to a maximum of around 40,000 feet (it can fly higher but loses operation impact at higher levels). By contrast the Sukhois can operate at full capacity at much higher levels and with that advantage they have systems and weapons that could blast an Australia JSF and its pilot out of the sky before they had a chance to 'first look, first shoot, first kill'. No dogfight required.

If Australia and the US chose the JSF we give control of northern Australian air space to Indonesia, and India in the 2020s. China also has an aircraft that looks better than the JSF. It’s not a question of predicting invasion but rather the knowledge that the countries to our north have air power, which we cannot match.

So Smith’s next question should be: ‘Is there any other alternative or are we doomed to be less than second rate?'

Thank goodness there is. The US has a magnificent aircraft the F-22A Raptor, which was mothballed when it was believed that the JSF would be more effective. If the software systems that have been developed  for the JSF were incorporated in an aircraft of the calibre of the F-22 we would be back in business.

Both political parties share responsibility for the JSF. To risk dooming Australia to being a second rate air power a few months before the next election is really unfair. Smith should take it out of politics and appoint a joint party committee to get to the truth.

Both political parties will have to come to grips with what to do in the post-2015 era when our neighbours are going to have air power capabilities, both airborne and surface based, designed specifically to be competitive with (if not overmatch) the F-22A Raptor and, by default, annihilate the Super Hornet and the JSF.