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Memo to Russell Hill: the F-35 won’t fly

The fighter plane project has been bedevilled by spiralling costs. It’s time for a new strategy

7 April 2012

1:00 PM

7 April 2012

1:00 PM

The fighter plane project has been bedevilled by spiralling costs. It’s time for a new strategy

Few of us get through life without having to navigate traumatic loss. Letting go of that thing we love is excruciating, because we have to cut out part of our core, our identity, our purpose. But it’s necessary because the alternative is endless, irrevocable waste. Nothing is more ghoulish than that poor, useless wreck who can’t let go.

It’s odd to see governments get themselves into the same frightful state as mortals, but the Australian government has managed it. The truth, plain to everyone not involved, is that the country’s decade-long infatuation with the US-designed F-35 fighter is doomed. It’s not just that the high-stealth glamour fades the closer you get; the F-35 is colossally overpriced. The Air Force establishment and the government need the courage to face facts.

Back in 2001, when the Howard government abandoned regular procurement processes, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II looked too sexy for words. It was to be the only widely available ‘fifth-generation’ fighter: a lethal mix of stealth, high-resolution sensors, high-speed data links and magical ‘data-fusion’. Pilots would sit at the centre of a brilliantly filtered battlespace information matrix, picking off fourth-generation targets from a lofty vantage of near-invisibility.

Senior officers swooned, but even hardened politicians were seduced, because by signing up early and paying a part of the F-35’s development costs — a sort of down-payment on the dowry — they could cash in with the electorate. Participant countries got the right to help build the thing. With a guaranteed production run of more than 3,000, Australia eyed a high-tech bonanza. Here was a chance for local firms to parade their prowess and secure their first big roles on the global defence industry stage.

Then the plane became absurdly expensive. Originally costed at US$69 million each, the price for a 2012 Air Force version (the type Australia wants) is US$197 million. This compares to approximately US$67 million for a Super Hornet (which Australia has bought as a stopgap), US$90 million for a Dassault Rafale, and perhaps US$110 million for a Eurofighter. But the F-35 doesn’t even work yet: most of the aircraft’s 24 million lines of code remain to be written, and only four per cent of the mission system for full combat capability has been verified. Earliest combat-capable date: 2015.

So far, the government has clung to the belief that when the Pentagon says ‘yes’ and dives into full-scale production, economies of scale will bring the plane falling into its arms. But the latest US Department of Defense budget, and investigative reports of the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), published on 20 March, should disabuse anyone of the idea that this is going to happen soon — certainly not by 2014, when Stephen Smith wants his first 14 planes.

First, the price will stay high because the Pentagon is caught in a purchasing death spiral. The planes are still expensive, so the Pentagon purchases fewer. In response, Lockheed Martin raises its unit price, quite reasonably, since the planes are in effect being custom-made. So the Pentagon purchases fewer the following year, and thus it has gone on for the past three years. The US is now buying a quarter of the planes originally planned up to 2017. What’s going to break this pattern of behaviour?

Second, even if the Pentagon charges recklessly into full-scale production of a plane that is far from combat-ready, the price won’t automatically fall. In its annual reports, the GAO has repeatedly warned that it can’t actually see any evidence to support Lockheed Martin’s promises of economies of scale. And a statistical analysis of the Pentagon’s FY 2013 figures bears the GAO out, if anyone in Defence can bear to look at the numbers and perform a correlation.

But the awful truth, impossible now to avoid, is that the Pentagon is losing heart. The F-35 was the biggest casualty of the FY 2013 budget cuts, accounting for US$15.1 billion of cuts, out of a total US$97 billion. And it’s not just about money. The reason, given equal status with finance, is ‘changing departmental priorities’. Where is the Pentagon increasing spending? Cyber and drones. ‘We’re still committed,’ says America, looking into Australia’s eyes, but numbers speak louder than words.

The moment when agonised disbelief genuinely fades isn’t when anger or grief abate, it’s when you realise there is something better on which to expend your energy; a better recipient of a higher cause. And if Defence could open their minds, they might see Salvation already soaring.

Last year, Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) in US forces flew more hours than manned air vehicles. They combine most of the attributes of fifth-generation planes — stealth, sensors, high-speed data links — but without valuable, expensive and heavy pilots or the horrendously expensive on-board systems that keep pilots at the centre of the action, and the F-35 on the ground.

Best of all, UAVs are going to be cheap, for the same reason that anything is cheap: specialisation. With high-speed data links, you can separate the core functions of the plane, and manage them safe on land: one person to fly the plane, one person to assess the battlespace, one person to manage weapons, one person to manage communications. And all the systems that manage these functions can be separated and commoditised, so that the most unpredictable cost in aircraft development — integration — disappears.

Just imagine. Instead of decades-long procurement programs, Defence could simply say: ‘We’re going to hold a competition in 2014. UAVs against RAAF fighters. Here’s A$191m (the price of one F-35) for each team, go and experiment with whatever mix of UAVs, weapons, sensors, control systems you like, and the winner gets a quarter of the annual F-35 budget.’

Of course, the RAAF establishment will make a sound like an F-35 trying to take off with its breaks on. How can any combat pilot kill the thing he loves, the unsurpassable thrill of fast-jet flying? But pitting pilots against the drone of reality will provide the salutary lesson that defeats the loudest entreaties and professional lobbying. How many co-ordinated, missile-armed drones have to be in the air around them before RAAF officers would very much rather be back on solid ground?

‘Love,’ sang k.d. lang, ‘is always on the go.’ The RAAF could face reality and move on now, saving Australia A$20 billion in the process. Who knows: if they did, and with passion, they — and Australian ingenuity — could stun the world.

Phil Radford is a regular contributor to Asia Times Online. 

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