August 28, 2008 (by Eric L. Palmer) - The senior Australian Defence leadership is embarking on a dangerous gamble with taxpayer’s money. This compulsive gambling habit will need a strong intervention by Parliament.
The F-35 returns to flight this afternoon at NAS Fort Worth, Lockheed-Martin facility on December 7th, 2007.
Defence and corporate interests are working hand in hand to see that Australia commits to the largest defence purchase in history: The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF
). The problems with this venture are many. First Australia, Defence White Paper or no, can’t cobble together a roadmap for the long term Defence of the Australian public. There is so much poor input into this process that a path for the security of Australia won’t be worth the paper it is written on. Second, sales people get paid to sell stuff. This means that that given the record of management by Defence on big dollar, high profile weapons purchases which is poor, going for yet more high risk, high dollar weapons systems is asking for more trouble. A slick sales effort and it’s off to the races with the taxpayer’s money and little or no solid research to stand on for justification of the purchase. Third, in the case of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), it isn’t ready to be sold any time soon. Why? An intelligent buying decision can hardly be made for some years until enough test hours are flown and the development of the aircraft has real tangible qualities one can point to in a fighter aircraft. Until a significant amount of maturity shows up in the F-35 program, any premature buying decision is no different than putting billions of dollars of the taxpayers money down on the roulette wheel and hoping for the best.
The lack of long range aircraft buying strategy by Defence is alarming. For example, Defence is basing the defence of the nation around an aircraft, the F-35, that has little substance. Years ago, Defence made the high risk decision to cut off a valid competition composed of a variety of proven aircraft in favor of the then vaporware F-35. This decision robbed the taxpayer of value. How? This decision put the RAAF at risk. By going with what was really an unknown delivery date to anyone who knows the gestation period of new aircraft types, the RAAF would flying an aged aircraft well beyond it’s useful life: The legacy F-18 Hornet.
Today, Defence is still wasting billions keeping the old F-18 around when it could have been long replaced. For example: The F-18 was never meant to be refurbished. It was meant to be flown a set amount of hours and thrown into the trash. Yet Defence has wasted almost a billion dollars trying to replace the center fuselage area of the aircraft called the center barrel. This repair is called CBR. CBR won’t return much value on the dollar. Even the U.S. Navy, who discovered CBR in a one-off event to fix a then new F-18 that got wrecked, doesn’t see enough value in the CBR process to continue it. And at this time only the U.S. Navy has the resources needed to sustain such an effort. CBR is an expensive and slow set of tasks. Canada, who also flies old F-18’s is shying away from CBR too.
Not long after the ink was dry on Australia’s deal to start CBR on it’s aging F-18s, Defence had to backpedal and admit that they didn’t know how to properly manage a CBR process. Mistakes on making the old F-18 combat worthy don’t stop there. Some years ago there was the goof up of getting the right electronic defensive kit for the aircraft. After wasting money on one poorly researched vendor, Defence had to waste more money by switching vendors after the first one failed to deliver a working product . In the end the F-18 got it’s electronic defensive gear, but what does the taxpayer get in return? Money thrown into an airframe that could have been replaced long ago.
Next is the F-18 Super Hornet debacle. While the Super Hornet may be good for the U.S. Navy based solely on the fact that it is the only U.S. carrier fighter in production and has a new car smell, it makes a poor fit for Australia. Even if one ignores the poor justification for getting the aircraft: A fib that the F-111 was at risk of falling apart based on a faulty fatigue test. One has to also consider other things about the Super Hornet purchase. It was done in a hurry based on little solid threat analysis and was bought on the premise of wasting supplemental taxpayer money outside of the normal Defence budget. This impulse buy, not unlike the kind for those with little restraint or children who see something tasty at the checkout counter, means that Defence has no solid grasp of how to manage a long range lifecycle plan for the kinds of combat aircraft needed to defend the nation.
In the case of Australia’s involvement in the F-35 project, the amount of the hype and blind faith Defence and industry heap on the unaware taxpayer is alarming. For example, supposed defence experts and pundits get up in front of Parliament and spin yarns about all of the great things of netcentric warfare (NCW). The religious zealots of NCW state that because every weapons platform: Ship, plane, tank is networked that it will make “us” better than “them” in any combat imagined. And that the F-35 will have this and isn’t that grand? What isn’t stated are the numerous limitations experienced by the biggest NCW users in combat: The U.S. military. For example there are significant frequency range and bandwidth limits in NCW. While NCW is useful, it is not an all powerful weapon. It is only a helper for military leaders that know what they are doing and have backup plans in case NCW is made unavailable in combat.
Those that over-sell NCW to a clueless Australian Parliament also don’t mention, (or don’t know) that a clever enemy has devised ways of limiting and even defeating NCW ability. Then too, at this time or anytime into the near future, there is no credible advanced network to put into the F-35 or any stealth fighter before it that doesn’t have significant limitations. This includes the fact that in a recent Lockheed Martin brief to Norway
who is also considering the F-35, that the network hyped for F-35 use was a Link-16 kit: A network setup common with other current combat aircraft.
The Norway brief gets more ugly when looking at any value attached to an F-35 purchase decision assuming all of the Buck Rogers gear promised for it works as advertised. For example a previous Norway briefing stated that the F-35 would have a 740 mile combat radius and cruise around 32,000-40,000 ft. This sounds great until you consider that the recent Norway brief clarifies this more. It states that the jet will do a 725 mile or so combat radius but there is a lot more to this figure that is quite damning. It states that this figure is with external fuel tanks and that the F-35 will meet it’s stated 600 mile or so combat radius on internal fuel only.
The problem with this little sleight of hand is that back in 2006, the U.S. Department of Defense let out a contract to make some changes on the kind of stores (weapons and appliances) that would be hung on the jet by the end of the aircraft development phase. In that contract the qualification of external fuel tanks were removed from the F-35 program.How will the F-35 hang external tanks is anyone’s guess until the DOD
lets some cash for that to happen.
Yet another warning to the buyer is that this clarification of combat radius in the latest Norway brief came with a rude surprise. That is, that the cruise altitude for the shown example mission would be at 25,000ft or less. What does this mean? Well first when your salesman doesn’t tell you about the lack of external tanks that’s one thing. The low cruise altitude means that this aircraft is heavy.
If people would relax and put the F-35 into context of what it is: a strike aircraft, that altitude thing would be OK. However there are those that are hawking the machine as an all killing reaper against top end air-to-air threats and advanced surface-to-air threats, which is a big reach considering the powerplant is of the slightly lower altitude kind, no super-cruise requirement in the design (going sustained super-sonic speeds with no fuel drinking afterburner a-la F-22) and the issue of weight hanging on high wing-loading.
So senior Australian Defence officials and industry are trying to get the taxpayer to bet their hard earned money on what? Well, besides what the slick sales effort would have the gullible believe, a smart buyer should seriously wonder. Here the aircraft has only performed a very small amount of flight test hours and there is a significant amount of weapons system equipment yet to be proven. The F-35 is a very complex weapon system. The first delivery to an actual user isn’t far away: 2012 for initial operating capability for the U.S. Marines. Speaking of which, a USMC General , scared about the big gapping hole of old fighter aircraft staring the U.S. military in the face in the coming years stated something to the effect that even if the F-35 showed up with less capability he needed it right away. He may get his wish yet what will he get? Consider that the Marines won’t know if their Short-Take-Off-Vertical-Landing (STOVL
) variants can even do such fancy take-offs and landings until sometime in 2009. And the big one: Blocks.
Blocks are stages of capability of the F-35 as it is developed. Block I will have a basic capability of some small worth. Block 2 will have more capability (more weapons ability and such) and so on. What defines the amount of weapons capability of the F-35 in Blocks 1, 2 and 3 have been watered down some since 2006. So much so that there are a lot of weapons capability one would expect on a real combat jet, that don’t show up until Block 4, 5 and 6. Or so we hope according to the latest Norway briefing. For example, one would think Blue Force Tracking, a network aid that shows the location of friendly ground forces would be delivered to the customer early-on. After all, it is a strike fighter. This doesn’t show up until Block 6. How about electronic attack and all the wonderful hype shown in those glossy PowerPoint briefings of F-35 electronic attack prowess? Well, that would be a much later Block 6. That of course is after they get the “power/thermal management improvement” figured out in Block 4. Speaking of Block 4, what the heck is “airframe life extension”? What kind of airframe is a Block 2 and 3 early F-35 user getting? One can look at the Block list from the Norway brief and consider that a lot the stuff you see in F-35’s proposed Block 4, 5 and 6 show up as standard equipment in today’s combat aircraft. What gives? And… Block I, 2 and 3 have a long way to go before proof of life.
So, back to Australia’s intrepid Defence leadership. They are happily showing all of the F-35 virtues based on nothing really except what the U.S. reports on the aircraft’s development progress. This is hardly any kind of strong platform to base a buying decision on that could top out at up to at least $16 billion dollars. More like a house of cards. What is truly astonishing are the sheep-like sounds of the Australian news media which has little ability to see any of the risks offered by the F-35 program. Even the crazy guy Maggot in the movie, The Dirty Dozen, saw judgment day coming.
For now, a spendthrift Australian Defence leadership is happy to herd the sheep (some of those in Parliament) right along to what may be certain doom. Without a strong and realistic analysis by an Australian Parliament of this very high risk project, the Australian taxpayer is going to be picking up not only the billions put into a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter decision, but billions more to clean up the mess should risk turn into failure.