Nelson's Toys


Even by the drunken-sailor standards of Australian defence procurement, it’s been a marquee week for Brendan Nelson’s boys and girls whose new toys just keep getting more and more expensive.

First, Dr Nelson decided to commit Australia to the $6 billion purchase of 24 F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter planes $2 billion more than mooted by Defence last year. The deal included 48 jet engines and extra cash for the more advanced ‘Block II’ model of the jet. Nelson’s media release announced the deal would ‘maintain Australia’s regional air superiority.’

In addition to the $18 billion the Government now expects to spend on buying Joint Strike Fighters (JSF), the new Super Hornet purchase means ‘Australia’s regional air superiority’ will cost upwards of $24 billion.

By the end of last week, reports were also emerging that Australia’s planned Air Warfare Destroyers were now expected to cost more than $7 billion for three ships. This was up from the $6 billion routinely quoted by Defence sources and releases in 2006.

Another week, another billion dollar blowout.

It’s lucky for the Reserve Bank that the Defence Department isn’t buying houses because, if the rest of the economy was experiencing the sort of price inflation taxpayers have seen on Nelson’s watch, RBA Governor Glenn Stephens would be raising interest rates quick smart.

So, why are we spending $6 billion on stop-gap fighter planes?

Nelson and the RAAF say it’s because we’re retiring our F-111s early, and the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is running late. This means we will lose a big proportion of our ‘air strike capability’ (that is, the ability to bomb and shoot missiles at things) unless we buy new planes.

But, as is common in the world of Defence politics, the truth is a long way from the highly misleading spin. Take the centrepiece of Nelson’s claim that Australia needs to buy the Super Hornets to ensure our regional air superiority. It’s a half-truth, at best.

The first dodge is the implication that Australia still, in fact, maintains regional air superiority. Sure, New Zealand no longer has an air force. But our current F/A-18A/B fighters are no match for the new Russian Sukhoi’s entering the air forces of Malaysia, India and China.

The second dodge is the need to retire the ‘aging’ F-111 fleet. The F-111s were built in the 1960s, but they’re packed with all-new avionics and their airframes were recently overhauled. The F-111s were scheduled to fly until 2012, and with increased maintenance could safely fly until 2016 or later. The United States Air Force (USAF) is planning to fly the even older B-52 into the 2040s, which will give them an 80-year life-span.

By retiring the F-111s early, we are retiring the biggest component of Australia’s air power. The new Super Hornets have half the range and around a third of the payload of the F-111 which is not actually a fighter at all, but instead a large strategic bomber with a capability unmatched in the region.

As several independent defence analysts, including the influential Carlo Kopp, have pointed out this week, Australia’s regional air superiority is being eroded over time. What is happening is that Australia’s neighbours are starting to buy the latest generation of Russian Sukhoi fighters, which are every bit as good and probably better than the ‘fourth and a half generation’ Super Hornet.

The Sukhoi Su-27/30 is a large, two-engine fighter with long range and superb performance. It is faster than a Super Hornet; sees further with its radar; and can fire missiles from further away, using the potent new generation of long-range Russian air-to-air missiles. Even Joint Strike Fighters are expected to fight at only about equal odds with capably-piloted Su-27/30s.

Put simply, the RAAF’s new Super Hornets are inferior planes.

‘But wait!’ say the RAAF Air Vice Marshalls. ‘Fifth generation fighters like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are a quantum leap ahead!’

This is the third big dodge of the current debate.

Fifth generation fighters like the F-22 and JSF are built from the ground up for stealth, but it is there that the similarities between the two jets end. The F-22A is fast, stealthy from all angles, can cruise at supersonic speed, and has far-seeing radar. The Joint Strike Fighter is smaller, slower, can’t cruise supersonically, is less stealthy and has a much shorter range.

The $24 billion problem for Australia’s taxpayers is that Australia is committed to the Joint Strike Fighter for political reasons. With the US refusing to export the F-22, and Howard and Nelson refusing to ask them to, Nelson appears locked into the JSF option: an expensive new plane that can’t achieve the air superiority claims made for it.

The Air Warfare Destroyers are a variation of the same gamble. The next generation of US warships including a brand new destroyer design called the DD(X) will be the first generation of stealth warships. But Australia is buying the last model of the old generation a big, non-stealthy AEGIS destroyer, probably an evolved version of the USS Arleigh Burke class.

Stealth technology matters because new missiles are making naval warfare a lethal environment for surface ships. The Argentines in the Falklands War in 1982 showed how much damage 1970s-era missiles like the Exocet could do. Modern missiles are much more potent and can travel at Mach 4. Non-stealthy ships in future naval warfare will be sitting targets.

It means that the Air Warfare Destroyers may one day be too risky to deploy especially in a high-intensity conflict where they can’t be protected by US carrier groups. The same may end up being true of our JSFs, which will need American F-22s to establish air dominance before they can safely enter into conflict.

This brings us to the fourth, and biggest, obfuscation of the Defence Department’s spin: that these purchases are sound investments in Australia’s security.

Not only are these shiny new fighters and destroyers unlikely to establish regional superiority they’re not going to be much use in a police action either. In contrast, $24 billion could buy a lot of the light infantry, medical teams, civil emergency services and foreign aid which will be needed in future missions in the Pacific, such as the RAMSI deployment in the Solomon Islands.

It’s a sobering thought that Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has recently been running a campaign to establish free public dental care in this country, at an estimated cost of around $4 billion. I would have thought politicians could see the value of a nation’s dental health. But then, politicians love getting photographed in jet fighter cockpits. Dentists’ waiting rooms just don’t offer the same media opportunities.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.