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JSF: The politics of wings

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18 November 2009 15:11

The strategic sages and hardware wonks still have years of happy argument ahead over the merits of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). But the politics of the plane are settled.

It's astounding how often defenceniks have these discussions without a whiff of politics. From White Paper to the choice of wings, until you factor in the politics you haven't put your teeth into the strategy.

Kevin Rudd has done a careful job of avoiding any hint of being a wimp on defence. The Prime Minister would not have minded the charge that his White Paper consisted of revving up a lot of things endorsed by John Howard. Call it maintaining the bipartisan consensus on the big defence issues. Or just avoiding any danger on your right wing. Having ticked the White Paper bipartisan box, Rudd then lifted the macho factor. Think cruise missiles. Think a doubling of the submarine force. 

The bipartisan politics of the JSF are easy because it is a program carried by the Howard Government for more than half its term in office. As long as the Air Force and Defence stick to the JSF, the only political danger for Rudd would be in abandoning the program or announcing an early decision to step back from the magic number of 100 planes.

That way lies a ceaseless Opposition chorus: Labor is weak on defence. Being weak on boat people is a bad enough accusation. Failing the defence test is political poison.

If the Government sticks to the program it has been talking about, the announcement will be made in the next few weeks. The public timetable is for the Government to give Second Pass approval before the end of 2009 to three JSF squadrons and a training unit, a total of 72 planes. The decision on the fourth squadron would come later — linked to the to use-by date for the Super Hornets. 

But what odds for a more staggered timeline? Given the slippages already, an immediate commitment to three squadrons would rate as brave (in the 'Yes, Minister' sense of rash heroism).

A Prime Minister who hopes to be in The Lodge still in 2015 should be wary of having too much political capital riding on three JSF squadrons that may not be on the 2020 horizon. The immediate politics argue for a 'Go' decision on the JSF, in line with what was announced in the White Paper. The longer term — looking out to the middle of the next decade — cautions about cost blowouts and big delays.

Photo by Flickr user Steve Snodgrass, used under a Creative Commons license.

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