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Comment: F-35 decision paralysis

written by australianaviation.com.au | December 13, 2012
The government has found another way to put off a decision about the Joint Strike Fighter. (Lockheed Martin)

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.”

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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.

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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.

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16 Comments

  • John N

    says:

    Kristian,

    What you said, I couldn’t have put better myself!

    As expected the Government has made a “decision, not to make a decision”, put it’s collective head between it’s legs and hope it all blows over, “if I don’t see or hear, it isn’t happening!” “Maybe we will lose Government before we have to make a decision, leave it to someone else!”.

    I have to give one thing to Def Min Smith, he did say earlier this year that he would make an announcement at the end of the year regarding addressing the potential issue of a capability gap, yes he made an announcement, but again it was an announcement without a decision.

    If you look at the time between then and now, we’ve had the Audit Office report that stated that the Classic Hornets, if managed properly will make it to their retirement date.

    We’ve also had nothing but pretty good reporting out of the F35 programme, meeting and exceeding its various target goals for this year, is there further delays around the corner? It hasn’t been reported.

    Sure the F35 still faces issues, so did the F111 and other “cutting edge” systems.

    The last thing the RAAF needs is a “mixed” fleet of 4th gen and 5th gen aircraft, two sets of aircraft, two sets of spares and support, two sets of training, the list goes on and on.

    The Super Hornet is a good aircraft, but it’s getting close to the peak of its capability, by 2030 it will be starting to fall behind the rest of the pack, what do we do then??

    We need a 5th gen aircraft to see us out to the 2050 period.

    I suspect if the Government does decide to proceed with an additional Super Hornet purchase its has “more” to do with the crap state of our Defence Budget as it does with anything else the Government might trot out as a reason why!

    Well, that’s my two cents worth!

    John

  • Dane

    says:

    The government has made a good choice in purchasing more Supers now to fill the capability gap that will no doubt become bigger. However, replacing the Classics with Supers, whilst cheaper now will be more expensive later when we are unable to match Russian or Chinese 5th Gen aircraft (should they ever be produced). Cutting back on the F-35 buy will have serious consequences later rather than sooner and the government needs to realise this. Stuff the surplus, it’s only getting thinner, and come budget time next year, it will probably be non-existent. By delaying the buy, you push back our initial delivery batch build considerably.

  • fueldrum

    says:

    “when we are unable to match Russian or Chinese 5th Gen aircraft”

    And you are expecting the F-35 to solve this problem?!?!?

  • John N

    says:

    Dane,

    I like your comments/posts, you make very reasonable, sensible and though out points, but I have to pick you up on this one.

    Despite what you said above, the Government has not made a decision to purchase more Super Hornets, its made no choice, good or bad, it’s made a decision to obtain pricing and availability, that’s all, there is no decision one way or the other at this stage, by mid next year yes, but not at the moment.

    The rest of your post, yes agree, “if” more Super’s are on the cards, it will be cheaper now, but it will cost a lot more, in lots of ways, in the future.

    It’s harder, and usually more expensive, to play catch up than it is to lead the pack.

    John

  • Dane

    says:

    Apologies, it probably should’ve said said “a good decision to look at purchasing”

  • John N

    says:

    Dane,

    No worries mate, I was just suprised that you said they had already made the purchase.

    Was starting to think you knew more that the rest of us!!

    John

  • Darren

    says:

    There’s a lot to be said about the political and military situation regarding the F-35. F-111 parallels cannot be considered irrefutable fact. I believe the F-35 will mature into a capable aircraft, however this is potentially outside the timescale of classic F/A-18 fatigue life. The EA-18G decision tied the RAAF to a two type force longer than expected. It also left a small strike force of 12 Superhornets. Increasing these numbers can leverage of existing infrastructure expenditure. Deferring the decision on F-35 to another budget and/or government satisfies a difficult political situation. Irrespective of a potential purchase being converted or not it gives the appearance of actively considering the situation. The RAAF has long operated two types –F-111/Hornet; F-111/Mirage; Canberra/Mirage; Canberra/Sabre; etc. It is also prudent. Should one type be grounded for any reason, we are not denuded of fighters. Acquisition of more F/A-18E/F’s would allow a drawdown of classic Hornets; increased F-35 maturity – i.e. not waiting for incremental software (aka capability) release like the Typhoon; F-35’s purchased at full rate production prices; and finally sends a signal to the program to get it right. Even the collective purchase power of non US air arms is not enough to influence the course of the program. Achieving solidarity across all these countries interests would be difficult, yet is certainly beneficial as individual deviations are mere tokenism, as is the rhetoric from the major partner. Their interests are twofold in reducing costs to the program, and securing through inventory supply interests in our purchase and use of said aircraft. The later point is an ongoing issue which relates to supplies from a single country. The F-35 may well provide for day 1 strike against an integrated air defence system, or increased survivability through being low observable, but the level of investment and required numbers may well result in compromise, politically and militarily, however unpalatable the later.

  • John N

    says:

    I don’t understand the logic behind comparing Canberra/Sabre, Canberra/Mirage, etc, as a justification for saying the RAAF has long operated two types of aircraft.

    In the examples above, each of those “pairs” mentioned had different and distinct roles, eg, one was a fighter, one was a bomber and even up to the last pairing, F111/Hornet, each aircraft had distinct roles within the RAAF.

    And when we move to a fleet of F35A’s and a Sqn of Growlers, both of those aircraft are going to be used and operated for two distinct and different roles, eg fighter, land and maritime strike for the F35’s and AEA for the Growler.

    Having a mixed fleet of Super Hornets and F35A’s, who are both for similar roles, fighter, land strike and maritime strike, one a 4th gen aircraft coming to the end of its production life, the other a 5th gen aircraft starting its production life, makes no sense to me at all.

    The extra cost and burden of having to support, train and operate two different fleets of aircraft to fill similar roles, for a small airforce like Australia’s, is going to be huge.

    As for the 12 original unconverted Super Hornets, yes they will still have airframe life left, so there is probably a number of roles / uses for them, aircrew training for the Growler fleet (not necessarily the AEA part), organic “buddy” tanking role within the Growler Sqn and even down to being an attrition reserve for the Growlers too.

    Another question is the availability for delivery of another 24 Super Hornets, with the F111 replacements we were lucky that the USN was able and willing to give up production slots, this time might be different.

    As pointed out earlier the Super Hornet production line will end around 2015, now if our production is added to the end of the US Navy run, more than likely we won’t see the first of those aircraft till at least 2018, and all delivered by 2020, which brings us to the start of the inservice date of the F35A’s anyway!!

    Rather than wasting another $3Billion or more on 24 Super Hornets, I’d rather see a tenth of that added to the money already allocated for the sustainment of the Classic fleet.

  • Dr. Malcolm R Davis

    says:

    Actually I think Smith has made the right choice here. Although the F-35 is making progress in its development, there is still a long way for it to go before it would be considered in IOC let alone FOC status. Most of the major testing and evalution is yet to occur, which means most of the real problems are yet to be found and resolved. The potential impact of a combination of foreign partners backing out of the deal (i.e. Canada, and now potentially us), with the looming ‘Fiscal Cliff’ potentially leading to pressure in Congress to cut the numbers of aircraft purchased, driving up the unit cost, and generating the spectre of a ‘death spiral’ cannot be ignored. Plus the early F-35s won’t be as capable as later batches which (one would hope) would be evolved to meet emerging fifth generation air combat capabilities and ‘double digit’ GBADS now appearing in China and Russia.

    The Super Hornets are not going to replace the F-35 as an option – by about the early to mid 2020s, they won’t be nearly as effective as they are now in terms of operational capability versus Russian and Chinese (and thus export) 5th Gen fighters and advanced air defence systems. But they give Australia a reasonable assurance in the short to medium term against more likely challenges, whilst giving us time to think about longer-term options.

    What should be happening now in Government is analysis on how the F-35 is likely to evolve as a platform, what sorts of capabilities an ‘F-35E’ (to give it a notional designation) might have circa 2025-2030, and to what extent other programs such as UCLASS and Sixth Generation Combat Aircraft might feed into RAAF planning for the 2030 – 2035 period.

    We might end up with fewer F-35s, later, but they will (hopefully) be better and more mature platforms that are potentially even 5+ gen in terms of capabilities. If the F-35 does not evolve – in other words, if the F-35 of 2035 is the same as the F-35A of 2020, then not only the RAAF but also USAF and many other air forces are in trouble. Because our adversaries will evolve their aircraft, as has been the constant dynamic throughout the history of air warfare. This is why I strongly oppose the stupid notion that the ‘F-35 is the last manned fighter’. Such nonsense ignores history and ignores the reality of how states think about ensuring their long-term defence capability, and places too much confidence on unmanned systems which are yet to be proven or even flown (Predator and Reaper are not credible platforms in a high threat environment). So perhaps the ADF should be spending a bit more time talking to the Americans about a role in the Sixth Generation, and seeing F-35 as a transition to something much more capable by around 2035.

    Dr. Malcolm Davis,
    Assistant Professor in International Relations,
    Bond University, Gold Coast, QLD.

  • Mike

    says:

    John, the Super Hornet line is currently set until July 2015. Any order placed by the end of 2013 will be able to start deliveries by the first part of 2016. Boeing has resources.. the USN has already put money away to order additional airframes past the ending date if need be. Not to mention the Super Hornet has high prospects right now in Brazil and is being considered in other countries like Malaysia and Canada.

    Another order would keep the RAAF competitive and if they wanted to buy F-35’s in the 2020’s they can at the best price possible. In the end both aircraft are wrong for Australia so you might as well pick the cheaper one.

  • John N

    says:

    Malcolm,

    A very interesting comment piece, couple of points.

    Yes there is the issue of a number of “partner” nations, especially Canada wavering, which has more to do with the internal politics going there as much as it has to do with the F35 itself.

    That being said, since the original 8 partner nations committed to the program, so has Japan and Israel too, and the door is open to more, eg, Singapore, possibly South Korea and Spain for its Carrier too, maybe more, maybe not.

    Regardless of possible changes to the orders, either up or down, the F35 program, is still going to be by far the largest military fighter program going, and that includes how successful or not the Russian/Indian and Chinese 5th gen programs go, of which are few test examples are currently flying.

    They may look like 5th gen stealth aircraft on the outside, but how far are they along with all the sensors, etc?

    Your “If the F-35 does not evolve”, eg, the differences in capability of one that is produced in 2020 vs 2035, seriously, is that something that you see is not going to happen?

    Look at the history of combat aircraft and systems, eg, the B52H of today is a far more capable aircraft than when the last rolled of the Boeing production line 50 years ago.

    In the Australian context, the recently retired F111 was a significantly enhanced system compared to the one that arrived in 1973, the Classic Hornets are another example of the changes and growth in capabilities since they arrived in 1985, the list goes on, the F35 will be no different.

    The F35 will go through all the various upgrades through its life, software, sensors, new weapon integration, engines, etc. To suggest otherwise, history shows, is wrong.

    As for 6th gen aircraft, yes I’m sure the Government/ADF keeps a watching eye on those developments, especially so with our close relationship with the US.

    But again, as history shows, very complex systems, if ever introduced, take a lot of time and money to deliver, whats to say that a 6th gen aircraft doesn’t end up with even larger development issues and delays, maybe by then we will be in the same boat, as we are now, and the arguments will be around a “7th Gen” aircraft.

    Yes I agree that Def Min Smith has done what you would expect a Government to do, and that’s keep all options open, investigate the alternatives, I have no problem with that in itself.

    Sure if very soon the F35 program was hit with a further, say, 5 year delay and/or the Classic fleet was suddenly going to be withdrawn, then I would agree, lets add more Super Hornets.

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is, how long do we wait to get “exactly” 100% we want? How long do we chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

    Personally, if there are no further delays with the F35 and the Classics don’t start falling out of the sky, lets stick to the plan and move to a fleet of 5th gen aircraft, eg the F35A.

    Cheers,

    John

  • Delgado

    says:

    I’m not a ‘so close to the military that I’ve gone native’ sort, that haunts the military websites and crowds out any criticism with specious and arrogant ‘self evident’ arguments designed to belittle others, instead I’m merely a casual observer.

    However for a long time I’ve openly questioned why at a protracted era (( 5 years now) of global financial trouble, troublesome programmes like the F-35 are even still going, as by rights they should be cancelled and the huge costs (and sovereignty held hostage to foreign nations) better spent elsewhere, including in other areas of ‘defence’ where appropriate.

    Its clear there is a vast chasm between the wider public and the military sorts (and their apologists) on the sort of failing programmes that seem to always crop up in ‘defence’ programmes.
    Oh I know, by now, someone here will be trying to dismiss my words as;
    1. A greens voter
    2. Uninformed and ignorant
    3. Some inner personal failing
    etc.

    I’ve been casually making notes on military websites for a while now and have worked out how the system works -, but in all honesty, I and most people when they learn the dire situation with ‘defence’, don’t support these vast sums being spent on nothing much at all and then when we do get equipment, we end up fighting foreign wars that no-one supports and in which we always lose!.

    I met a poor bloke who is living in a tent recently, what about the people living in their cars?.
    Some ugly mnds like to blame the victims, but thats just a dodge for in truth infantile minds still playing war games with their toys, with our country one of the worst offenders such is our servile zeal to participate in other nations wars, as a way of gaining favour.
    So very schoolground still.

  • Raymond

    says:

    It’s looking more and more like the political party that actually initiated Australia’s involvement in the JSF program back in 2001 will be the one to make the plunge and really commit the RAAF to the jet! At the rate this government is going and with a federal election rapidly approaching…

    Wait for words to the effect that “The Minister for Defence has announced that it is in the best interests of Defence that the decision to acquire a further 12 F-35’s be delayed until after the federal election due in [insert date here] and Government is no longer in caretaker mode…”

  • graeme

    says:

    I find I have to defend the current government & I wonder are are australians that well informed or are we all just victims of the same Phenomenon that inspired a minning magnate to want to control channel 10. I think if you wanted to know how the Liberals would have handled the GFC take a look at Greece, Austerity with loss of income if you managed to keep a job & the loss of Super annuation.
    To raymond what’s your point, was the JSF decision a good one or not. From what I understand & what everyone else seems to think, it’s purchase is not the best decision.
    Incase people have already forgotten Australia has participated in a war for the last 10+ years. One should consider what this has done to other countries.ie Britian no longer has a harrier force & the dutch reduced the size of their F16 force by selling them to Chile( from memory). I would have thought it prudent to put off the decision to purchase the F35 until next year considering the US has to decide on how it will handle it’s fiscal cliff.
    In my mind Labor has done a good job in Defence. Especially the navy.
    Years ago I saw a documentary on the decision to purchase the Super Hornet. In the past Aircraft manufacturers to have a shoot out to perform the best platform. This was actually cancelled as the Dassault representitive was in a car on his way to Canberra. Th SH had been selected. What I thought was an issue was that they mentioned past Liberal party member Andrew Peacock was the CEO for Boing Australia. They also had a think tank of ex Airforce members & Stratagist, who thought the super Hornet might pull off an attack on Jakata but they wouldn’t get home. An attack with a SH would also require a lot off support aircraft where as an F111 could do it unsupported.

  • David

    says:

    Can the world order evolve without direct armed conflict between major powers?

    Blue water sea trade is critical. One navy can continue to dominate for the foreseeable future.

    Which 5th generation fighter is now in production?

    Gentlemen know that an index finger is what Pfizer doesn’t call “the elephant in the room”.

    Supercars are purchased by short, bald guys who drive slowly past plate glass windows to look at themselves.

    Young guys hit the gym so they can pound it hours.

    They’d be better off learning to use an index finger.

    War is not sexy.

    Play really nice, eat dust, and you just might be the ones with the best new toys.

  • Paul

    says:

    The Super Hornet at least puts some actual planes on the flight line and the Growler capability could add significantly to what ever else we may have.

    Both the F18 and F35 are bothe very very S L O W. The F15 Silent Eagle (twice the cost of the Super Hornet) would provide a much needed air superiority capability ……. but how capable an aircraft is depends on who the adverary may be and the particular situation requirement of the day.

    In a MIG alley scenario platforms such as a PAK FA have far greater capability that any current or proposed version of the F18 or F35. Only an F15SE or an F22 would stand much of a chance IMO if a “Mig Alley” that was populated with the latest Russian or Chinese designs.

    In other future scenarios, a Growler could conceivably run a number of UAVs and so could be viewed as a mother ship with a high self defence capability. Missile and radar technology will also improve so nothing is static. I can’t say whether or not a lack of air speed will be critical but for pilots, range and speed (not F35 stong points) are nice to have.

    As an aside, it is the capability, upgradability and servicability of an aircraft that counts rather than some silly “generation” tag .

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