That pesky Joint Strike Fighter is in the news again. The careful observer will have seen both sides of Australian politics carefully positioning themselves in the wake of the leaked Ready for Training Operational Utility Evaluation report that revealed significant platform immaturity, even for crew conversion training.
In Australia, the JSF had been fairly stealthy over the summer, until ABC’s Four Corners aired a story on the 18th of February reminding us of huge cost blowouts, long schedule overruns and still-unresolved performance problems.
In the US, by far the largest planned operator of JSF, the JSF will be the Hurricane to the F-22 Raptor’s Spitfire. But there is nearly zero chance of the program being significantly reduced, because the work has been carefully spread over most of the country, creating enormous Congressional lobbying pressure. What is in doubt is the final number of aeroplanes to be built.
And Australia is grappling with the same question. As costs spiral up (a pile of dollar coins equal to a single JSF’s pricetag would stand higher than the aeroplane’s service ceiling by nearly an order of magnitude), the Government is weighing its options. Will we still buy the original one hundred? Fifty? Some other number? And, as the delivery date disappears into the sunset, what of a stop-gap? Do we need more Super Hornets? If so, does that cost lead us to a mixed fleet?
Even in the USA they’ve heard the Australian disquiet. The Washington Post recently reported that Australia is considering halving its order. Watch this space.
Against this background the partisan positioning seems a bit pathetic. Once the Four Corners report and the Pentagon test paper hit the news, the Fairfax press began running stories revealing a flawed acquisition process under the previous conservative government. And Murdoch wheeled out Greg Sheridan to defend the project.
My guess? In this time of not-quite budget surpluses, Defence isn’t getting any more money for a stop-gap extra squadron of Super Hornets. Nor will the full one hundred JSFs be affordable. We will probably accept whatever number of JSF fits into a budget, somewhere around fifty of them. And until they come into service, we’ll make do with what we have now. (This may involve a White Paper that reminds us there is no air threat to Australia that a handful of Hornets can’t defeat.)
In the meantime, the posturing will go on.