By Kristian Hollins
The Minister for Defence — in some circles now known as the Minister for Disarmament — today announced…nothing. Worse, the government announced a potentially very expensive way of doing nothing.
In an overly-wordy statement, the four paragraphs of substance said Defence will now submit a “Letter of Request (LOR) to the United States seeking cost and availability information for up to an additional 24 Super Hornet aircraft through the United States Foreign Military Sales program.”
In the 2012-13 budget, Mr Smith said government would make a decision on further F-35 purchases within the 2012-13 financial year. Today’s faux-announcement suggests a further six month decision paralysis, which would include another budget cycle and a federal election.
Importantly, an additional 24 Super Hornet aircraft, bringing the total to 48 (36 Super Hornets and 12 EA-18G Growler variants) will never constitute a comprehensive air combat capability for the RAAF. This means Australia will still, eventually, need to invest in the purchase of the F-35, although at arguably lower levels than the 2009 White Paper would have suggested.
With Boeing’s Super Hornet production line set to wrap up deliveries in 2015, any new orders would need to be made as soon as possible to ensure long-lead items can still be produced. The longer a decision is delayed on the purchase of additional Super Hornets, the better the chances of a significant F-35 buy.
The costs inquiry will undoubtedly cause further consternation amongst other F-35 partner nations, particularly following the inaccurate rumours of Canadian cancellation last week.
With the F-35 buy structure the way it currently sits, the United States has a majority stake and therefore a majority vote, in program decisions. The individual partner nations do not compare to the US stake enough to make a dent in the decision-making process. However, the collective weight of the partner nations provides enough clout for some influence on production outcomes.
Australia’s 12-month decision delay announced in the May budget was a kick in the teeth to the program’s other minor partners. Today’s announcement will again lessen the collective bargaining power of partner nations, even to the point of going against our own interests in the program for the sake of political expediency.
As for the F-35, Australia has been a partner in the JSF program since its inception in 2001. How is it that the Minister doesn’t know whether the aircraft will be worth the cost? More likely, under the fiscal status quo, the Minister knows exactly how much the capability will cost, but is unwilling to part with the funds.
Indecision begets the laissez-faire attitude of procrastination, which itself begets bad decisions with long-term consequences. Most importantly, indecision is often worse than choosing incorrectly.
Kristian Hollins is the editor of Australian Defence Business Review.