July 1, 2009 (by Eric L. Palmer) - Australian Defence has released their Defence Capability Plan today. In it is confirmation that the F-35 is written into the acquisition roadmap for major weapons purchases.
F-35A - CTOL
This DCP is a summary of major capital equipment proposals that are planned for Government consideration over the period of 2009-10 to 2012-13 fiscal years. This plan also gives industry a heads-up so they can see where Defence acquisition is going.
So what does the this DCP say about the F-35? It states that 72 F-35 aircraft (known as Phase 2A/2B) for three squadrons will be requested by Defence for Government approval. A future DCP should address a request for additional F-35s in a fourth squadron (known as Phase 2C) to bring the total number acquired by Australia up to 100.
Phase 2C would be coordinated with phasing out the 24 F-18F Super Hornets which will arrive soon as part of a ten year $6.6 billion dollar capability. The release of this DCP was waiting for the recent publication of the Defence White Paper which recommended that Australia should procure the F-35. This is no surprise and any other result would have been impossible given the marketing effort that Defence has been doing for the F-35 over the years.
The DCP states that the “year-of-decision” for the 72 F-35s in Phase 2A/2B is FY 2009-10 to FY 2010-11. This will be the time period where the government makes its final ruling for procurement. Defence expects initial operating capability for the F-35 in 2017-2019.
Like the recent Defence White Paper, the DCP is a faulty product that makes a lot of assumptions. Where it gets even more complex are the obvious issues surrounding not only the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project but the Australian budget which has committed billions to try and stem the effects of the global economic meltdown.
At this time, no one really knows when the F-35 will arrive, how much it will cost or if it will perform. First, the F-35 schedule has already slipped due to a number of technical issues. Next, the aircraft has not demonstrated that it is affordable. Finally, its true performance is unknown because so little flight testing has been done - and that is behind schedule as well. The DCP mentions low rate production for the F-35 from 2007 to 2015 but it doesn’t mention that hundreds of aircraft will be built without the benefit of significant amounts of flight test discovery.
While the DCP states the unproven claim that over 3000 of the aircraft will be built worldwide, Defence has not demonstrated that the F-35 is affordable or capable. They only hope that it is and ask us all to have faith. At this time, there isn’t enough hard analysis for the government to believe that Defence has a grasp on the risks involved with this program.
In other news, Defence Minister Faulkner has announced a top to bottom review of Defence. This would be expected considering he just took the job over from outgoing Defence Minister Fitzgibbon. Fitzgibbon resigned under a cloud of conflict-of-interest claims that made him a popular target in the press. With over $60 billion earmarked for Defence projects over the next four years, the department has to find $20 billion in savings over ten years.
Today, The Herald newspaper is reporting that, “The Department of Defence has classified noise forecasts for the Joint Strike Fighter restricted and confidential, delaying public scrutiny of how the new aircraft will affect communities under the flight path from Williamtown RAAF base.” The data will not be disclosed until September.
Given the unknowns facing this program, a “fly-before-you-buy” approach with a fully capable go-to-war F-35 is the only safe play. Defence has yet to prove it can string together a track record of big wins on large dollar weapons purchases. This at a time when Australia is lining up to embark on the very risky and most costly weapon system ever considered by Defence - The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.