Like Sam, I had high expectations for the Four Corners report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and was a little disappointed. To butcher Mark Twain, Four Corners may not repeat itself but it does rhyme.
Last night's story on the JSF was eerily similar to this story from back in 2007, also by reporter Andrew Fowler. Last night's segment discussing John Howard's 2002 meeting with Lockheed Martin and the shock of Dassault's Daniel Fremont at the JSF decision was largely a re-run from 2007. In both stories, former RAAF officer Chris Mills was on hand to conduct war gaming, though thankfully this time Four Corners left out the awkward Jakarta air strike simulation.
Four Corners' 2007 program argued that then Defence Minister Brendan Nelson's purchase of the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet was flawed because the F-111, in the words of one interviewee, would last 'virtually forever'. Conventional wisdom now is that Nelson's decision was prudent.
Last night's Four Corners also picked up inspiration from this five-month old Canadian story on the JSF, including its star interviewee, Pierre Sprey. Sprey made a lot of comments which were left uncontested throughout the story, including the assertion that 'high cost and low performance was designed into this plane'. Sprey also asserted that the F-16 would beat the F-35 in aerial combat, a point others would debate vigorously. Some of the other assertions put up on the program were very sloppy indeed, including this gem about the JSF: 'the aircraft is designed to rape, pillage, and plunder governments around the Western world'.
Two things were fresh from last night's program. The first was the access granted to interview Lockheed Martin officials and the USAF general in charge of the JSF program. The second was the allegation from a shadowy 'anonymous defence official' that former Air Force chief Angus Houston and Prime Minister John Howard short-circuited the normal procurement process on the JSF.
Houston's explanation for this seems entirely reasonable, and absent anything further must be accepted over a few assertions from a retired defence official not willing to comment publicly.
Four Corners also made no mention, either in its program or in the accompanying background material on the website, of this September 2012 ANAO report into the JSF procurement process. This seems to suggest that Four Corners was not aware that Australia's F-35 procurement had already been thoroughly audited.
The program did make clear that the JSF is very, very late and very, very expensive. But that in itself is not unique among air combat procurement projects. As this ANAO report makes clear (Chapter 2), Australia's 75 F/A-18 'legacy' Hornets were delivered at almost double the budgeted cost.
Lockheed Martin is certainly sensitive to the ballooning cost of the F-35. Just look at the flight suit patch it is issuing for the F-35 (above). Where normally these kind of patches would be packed with pugnacious slogans, this one highlights that the JSF is 'affordable'. At $135 million a piece, I won't be picking one up on my salary anytime soon.
The JSF arouses passionate debate here in Australia, and Robert Gottliebsen and Air Power Australia have been prolific in their search for 'truth' on the F-35's capabilities and Australia's possible air combat gap. I don't yet know who is right and wrong in this debate, but these writers have certainly made me curious. Still, if there is a smoking gun to be found that shows we have chosen the wrong aircraft, Four Corners has yet to find it.
I do agree with one of their conclusions, however: it is very likely that the Defence Minister will announce an additional purchase of F/A-18F Super Hornets when the defence budget is announced in May.