The Defence debate going on in Australia at the present time is receiving a bit of attention here and there over the past couple of months, and with the current geopolitical situation, and Australia in the midst of an almost unprecedented phase of military materiel acquisition, this sector promises to continued impact in a range of ways in the foreseeable future.
One of the biggest in terms of dollar figures and the political snap, crackle and pop it has generated, has been Australia's acquisition of the Joint Strike Fighter. All the local broadsheets have recently run articles discussing the possibility of this program running late and/or running over budget. There has also been a concerted campaign by a couple of well-positioned journos, sector aspirants/agitants to revisit the plan to purchase the yet-to-be fully developed JSF platform.
The arguments seem to run to two main ideas:
1. Scrap the idea of getting the JSF completely and buy the "higher performing" F-22 Raptor instead. This argument, recently picked up by the ALP's Defence spokesman, Robert McLelland [http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,18726033-31477,00.html], goes that the cost increases in the JSF program make it increasingly unlikely that this aircraft will offer a significant cost benefit to the Raptor. The Raptor is clearly one of the best - if not the best - fighter/attack aircraft on the planet at the present time - stealthy, fast, maneuverable and able to carry and deliver the most advanced weapons systems in the world. It's easy to see why on the surface, this option might start to look tempting, but the cost figures alone make it prohibitively expensive - $US45 million per aircraft for the JSF compared with $US153 million for the Raptor. It is likely that the final JSF price tag will be higher and Mr. Mclelland has quoted a recent US report that states the JSF price tag might rise to $US137 million. Starts to look on parity with the Raptor, right?
Wrong. The $137 million price tag quoted is for the low rate initial production (LRIP) phase, while the Raptor is in full production, and prices for the Raptor are likely to rise as more capability and interoperability features are built in over time. Other issues too, must be considered if we are to make a genuine comparison between the two aircraft too. The JSF will be used to replace both the F/A-18 and F-111 fleets, and will therefore fill the need for a multi-role fighter/attack aircraft. This means air to air, air to surface and air to ground capabilities will be required. Currently, the Raptor is a specialist air to air fighter and although air to ground capabilities are being incorporated, the costs involved will not be insignificant. In fact, it has been estimated by a couple of well-placed defence mates that once the extra capabilities and likely low volume purchase were factored in, the eventual cost to Australia could rise to as high as $A380 million for each Raptor aircraft.
Hardly bargain basement, and this says nothing of the punitive through life support costs that would also be incurred. The JSF will be in much broader use, and the through life support costs will be significantly reduced in relative terms to those of the Raptor.
Bottom line - the Raptor would great if we could afford to run it alongside other fleets of specialist aircraft and had deep enough pockets to support it - but we don't.
2. Forget about the idea of getting new planes because the ones we have at the moment (F/A-18, F-111) are just fine. This line of thinking has been touted by some, including a vocal F-111 lobby (http://www.ausairpower.net/index.html), who appear to have gotten into the ears of a few pollies recently. The argument has it that the F-111 is in line to be retired far too early and should be left in service until at least 2020, because it is a superior aircraft for Australia compared with anything else out there – including the JSF. Such a retirement date it turns out, may not prove beyond the realms of possibility, although it will have more to do with the likely delay in JSF introduction than any decision to retain the F-111 for purely operational strategic reasons, but more on that later.
The F-111 has been and continues to be a superb aircraft, but is one that will eventually outlive its operational usefulness. The US retired all of its fleet in 1998 and Australia remains as the only nation still operating this airframe which, after the original supplier was swallowed up in one of the many rounds of defence industry M&A rounds of the 1990's, leaves Australia as the effective owner, operator and spare parts supplier. The costs of ownership are spiraling, and we are increasingly being made to pull technological rabbits out of hats to keep the many existing and emerging problems at bay, all against a backdrop of a decreasing safe fatigue life that simply cannot be extended indefinitely. The current planned withdrawal date of around 2010 would see the life of these aircraft extended by around 50% relative to the US fleet, and the possible extension out to as far as 2020 would effectively double the life of the airframe. Granted - these figures do not take account of flying hours or severity of usage, but an extension until 2020 will probably require further costly avionics and weapons systems upgrades, which starts to look a bit silly, given that it amounts to effectively shoe-horning 21st century systems into a 60-year old airframe - quite a gamble for one of the nation's front line aircraft.
In a strategic sense, the argument goes that the JSF will not be able to travel "long distances" (read - Jakarta) and deliver high-tonnage "stores" (a nice way of saying bombs) on a single re-fuelling, whereas this sort of mission - as a key selection criteria for the F-111 originally - is the F-111's bread and butter. This argument however, fails to acknowledge a couple of key points - firstly that if you have a radar cross-section akin to the side of a barn, range tends to be a bit less important than the ability to hide. Also, with the range of modern weapons systems and defensive strategies currently employed by nations around the world, stealth (the ability to penetrate defensive systems without being seen) and stand-off capability (the ability to deploy weapons from beyond the reach of an enemies' defensive systems and get out quickly) are the critical factors.
Australia has also recently upgraded its air to air re-fuelling capability and is in the process of acquiring the Air Warfare Destroyer and Amphibious landing ships (the latter with flat tops...can anyone spell "aircraft carrier"?), so the range argument is a red-herring. Also, modern weapons have greater range, are more surgical and pack a bigger punch than they did in the days when the F-111 was designed and built, which means we don't need to deliver massive tonnage to the front door anymore, so the tonnage argument loses a bit of its relevance as well.
The government recently announced that despite not being able to confirm for sure when the aircraft would be ready, nor what the final price tag would be, Australia would buy the JSF. The decision confirmed what everyone already knew, as former Defence Minister Hill had committed Australia to participating in the initial development phase of the aircraft back in 2003. The decision to join the program so early raised a few eyebrows, especially as it was seen to (and of course did) give the implicit inside running to the JSF over the other candidates that were being evaluated at the time while the evaluation process was still underway. The other aircraft under consideration included the Rafale, Gripen and Typhoon (the Russians were even given a chance to pitch the Sukhoi) all of which, like the F-22, are predominantly air to air attack platforms and/or too small to be seriously considered (and Australian requirements typically specify a twin engine aircraft in case pilots run into problems over water).
At the time of the decision to join the JSF club, the evaluation process was well advanced and all indicators pointed to the JSF being the recommended platform. So, despite the appearance of a snap decision, this was a considered choice and has resulted in Australia being able to influence critical design elements of the aircraft, rather than buying something off the shelf and making it fit our strategic needs. Additionally, Australian industry has done remarkably well in a comparative sense with other participating nations, winning work on the program for the last few years, which positions us well to win follow-on regional support centre work during the follow-on sustainment phase of the program.
There have been and will continue to be delays in the JSF program, and my defence sources project that we may not see our first operational unit until at least 2016, with a fully kitted out fleet available until a couple of years later. Australia is currently in the midst of the "Hornet upgrade" program which is a significantly costly exercise that involves major structural refurbishments and critical electronic upgrades. These aircraft too, will be getting very long in the tooth by the time the JSF is ready for deployment with a kangaroo painted on the side. This certainly does present us with problems in terms of capability gaps and we absolutely will need to continue the good work in keeping the F-111 and F/A-18 fleet flying until the JSF's come on line. As a result, it is possible that the F-111 may not be withdrawn at the current projected date of around 2010, and could be extended well into the second decade of this century, but the important point here is that we will eventually reach a point at which it will just not be worthwhile to continue. If the current Board of Inquiry into the Nias Sea King disaster tells us anything, it is that the Australian public does not respond well to our servicemen and women's lives being lost on duty. We will probably at some point, need to consider a stop gap measure when it turns out that safely maintaining our rickety old warhorses becomes too technically or fiscally challenging. In this case, the most likely replacement would be more F/A-18's (although we would get the modern E/F variant to complement our current fleet of older A/B aircraft).
So what does it all mean? In essence, it can be summarised in a few short points:
1. Australia can't afford to buy the F-22 Raptor (and it doesn't make strategic sense anyway);
2. Australia may have to continue to extend the life of our F-111's, but this will be done through necessity, not choice;
3. The JSF has been the right choice for Australia's future air defence needs, and;
4. The JSF will probably be very late, leaving us with some challenging issues to face in the interim.
Below - F111
Below - Joint Strike Fighter
Below - Raptor