Air Superiority, But At What Cost?


The Abbott government is spending $12 billion to buy 58 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from the United States.

It’s a momentous decision. Air power remains the bedrock of Australia’s defence capability. Without control of the air, it will be almost impossible for any other state to invade or physically threaten Australia. Spending up on jet fighters thus represents a critical choice.

Commentary and reaction to the decision has largely boiled down two questions: does Australia really need them? And are the F-35s any good?

For the boffins at Australia’s most influential defence talking shop, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the answers are yes and yes — perhaps not surprisingly, given that Lockheed Martin is a sponsor of the think tank.

ASPI’s Andrew Davies argues that air combat is central to Australia’s defence capability.

“I think if you're going to have a defence force, history tells you that you better have control of the air if you're going to operate in a contested space, so I think it comes down to a pretty fundamental decision,” he told the ABC yesterday.

Defence commentator Ross Babbage agrees. He told the ABC’s Brendan Trembarth yesterday that there are “not too many prizes in air combat if you've got the second best aircraft.”

Most other defence analysts agree. Air power is the keystone capability for modern, high-intensity warfare. Without it, the Navy is frighteningly vulnerable. For a two-ocean nation such as Australia, therefore, air power is generally seen as a non-negotiable part of our defence forces.

The fighter jet jocks love to wheel out a handy quote from Billy Hughes about air power from way back before the Second World War. “If our resources will not suffice to furnish with all arms of defence, we must concentrate on aircraft,” Hughes said in 1935. There seems little chance of Australia following New Zealand’s lead, and selling off our fighter jets altogether.

If Australia simply must have fighter jets, the question then becomes what are the best planes for our limited defence dollars. On this point, the experts are fiercely divided.

The JSF is one of the most complex and expensive weapons systems in history, and has been bedevilled with cost over-runs and technology failures. Originally designed to be a smaller, cheaper plane to augment the F-22, it will end up costing around $100 million per plane.

Liberal MP Dennis Jensen has been a long-time critic. “It’s a dud decision,” he said yesterday. “No one has had the balls to call a halt to it or to even call for a full capability analysis against requirements.”

Others agree. For years now, prominent independent air power commentators such as Air Power Australia’s Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon have been mounting a convincing case about the F-35’s shortcomings as a warplane. The Joint Strike Fighter, they argue, is slow, small, undergunned and underpowered. Worse, it not as stealthy as Lockheed Martin claims. They think it would lose a fight against a force of Russian-built Sukhoi Su-35 jets.

A controversial computer simulation by the RAND Corporation in 2008 suggested that a combined force of US F-35s and F-22s would probably lose a dogfight with Chinese jets over the South China Sea. One of the major problems identified is that the F-35s don’t carry enough missiles. A scenario in which some hostile planes evaded F-35 missile volleys would see the faster Sukhois chase down and destroy the F-35 fleet en masse.

How relevant is such a scenario for Australia? After all, if the US and China are shooting at each other, Australia’s doomsday strategic outcome has already eventuated. In any purely regional engagement, Australia’s qualitative dominance in radar, electronic warfare and command and control should provide an effective deterrent against most threats.

None-the-less, there is no doubt that the Joint Strike Fighter is not the world’s best air superiority fighter. That title rests with the F-22 Raptor. As Air Power Australia’s Goon said in a radio interview yesterday, non-US fighter jets are all being designed to fly against the F-22.

“Now, if the JSF can beat the F-22, then it's the right choice,” he argued. “If it can't, there needs to be a rethink.”

We could of course try a cheaper option. Even ASPI’s Andrew Davies argues Australia can comfortably get by with an expanded fleet of Super Hornets, if we were prepared to accept that they won’t be as good.

“Super Hornets and the other enabling elements of air combat capability (air-to-air refuellers, airborne early warning and Jindalee over-the-horizon radar) would be likely to provide Australia with a sufficiently robust air combat capability for the next couple of decades,” he wrote in a recent analysis for the think tank.

The war nerds will continue to thrash these issues out on their message boards. But, in political terms, the problem is largely irrelevant. The F-22 is not for sale; indeed, it is no longer in production. Australia actually asked Washington whether we could buy the Raptor early in the Rudd government: the answer was no. Nor is anyone seriously suggesting Australia would buy a fighter plane from Russia; the consequences for the US alliance would be significant.

As a result, if Australia wants a brand new fighter jet with a so-called “fifth generation” design, there is actually only one option: the F-35.

The truth is that the US alliance has determined this decision. Much like the battleships we paid Britain to build for us in the 1900s, Australia’s strategic relationship with America means we are completely dependent on their military-industrial complex for the fighter jets we deploy in our defence. As Bernard Keane wrote yesterday, the real winner here is Lockheed Martin.

The F-35 decision is also interesting because of what it tells us about the way Australian governments make critical decisions. It’s instructive to examine the differences between costly decisions about defence, compared to other critical aspects of our national security, such as telecommunications and climate change.

In defence, our two major parties have a bipartisan commitment to go for the best option, no matter the cost. Given the expanding capabilities of cyber-warfare, the National Broadband Network is arguably nearly as important to Australia’s future security as the defence force itself.

But in contrast to defence policy, when it comes to the NBN, the Coalition never adopted a bipartisan approach. In opposition it ruthlessly attacked the very idea of an NBN. In government, it is cobbling together an inferior network out of manifestly outdated and inadequate technologies.

When it comes to climate change, already wreaking havoc on key industries like reef tourism and inland farming, the Abbott government is completely in denial about the scale of the threat. To take just one example, a recent report by ASPI itself has suggested that much of Australia’s defence infrastructure is itself threatened by a warmer future: the F-35 will need air conditioned hangers and new heat-resistant runways, while the Navy’s port facilities are at risk of flooding.

Military spending is an excellent example of the precautionary principle. If all goes well, the F-35s will never be used in combat. How strange that the precautionary principle doesn’t apply in other areas of national security policy, like the threat of a radically warmer world.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.