The Joint Strike fighter (JSF) is a hard project to love. But let me admit to Sam that I am one of those who, without financial incentives, remains persuaded that the JSF is probably the right combat aircraft for Australia, simply because, for all its faults, I'm not sure there will be anything better.
First, the faults. The JSF will be more expensive, less capable and slower to arrive than promised and planned. This was always entirely predictable. The JSF project set targets for cost and schedule which defied long-term trends in combat aircraft development, trends now so well established over so many projects over so many decades that they resemble laws of nature.
That's not to say these laws can't be broken, but they can only be broken by doing things really differently, and that has not happened. The much-hyped new design and development approaches that were supposed to save years and billions have turned out not very different after all, so the JSF is a fighter project like any other. Costs have climbed. They will climb further and faster in future, as numbers drop. And performance will be cut to slow the climb. So we should expect the JSF will get later, more expensive and less capable yet before we see it in service.
But none of this necessarily means Australia should not buy the plane. That depends on whether there is anything better on the market – better for our needs, I mean. Of course that depends first on how we define our needs. For present purposes we can boil that complex topic down to a single question: do we want to buy the ability to be able to operate against the kind of air capabilities that will probably be available to Asian major powers over the next, say, four decades? Or do we only want to be able to operate against the kinds of air capabilities we might expect to see in service in Southeast Asia?
Which it is depends on your view of Asia's future strategic order, and Australia's role in it. But in broad terms, if we do not want to be able to fight major Asian powers, then we don't need the JSF and can happily stick with planes like the F-18 E/F Super Hornet. If we do need that capacity, then there is a good argument that we need the JSF. I incline to this later view. Those who incline the other way should address two questions: do we need to be able to fight major Asian powers? Are there more cost-effective ways of getting that capability than the JSF?
One last point. It is now abundantly clear that the old idea of a swift, smooth leap to the JSF over the next decade will not happen. Back in 2000 when the JSF option emerged, we had in mind that the old F-18 and F-111 fleets would phase out quickly as the completely new JSF fleet came into service between 2012-13 and 2018-19. In this way we hoped to avoid lengthy, complex and costly transition periods in which the RAAF would have to operate several different kinds of high-performance aircraft, and quickly give ourselves a relatively large and very capable new air force.
Now we almost certainly face a protracted period – probably several decades — in which the JSF, if and when it arrives, will be part of a mixed fleet that includes Super Hornets and quite possibly some of our present F-18s (much upgraded) as well. Which will be very expensive, and very demanding on our small and fragile air force.
Photo courtesy of www.jsf.mil.