It has just been pointed out to me that in his press conference of 23 April announcing the decision to buy 58 Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs) for the Royal Australian Air Force, Prime Minister Abbott made a tantalising reference to future additional purchases of the JSF. If it means what I think it means, it could be highly significant. I'm sure readers will let me know if anyone else has picked up on this quote*, but as far as I can see, no one has. Here it is, with my emphasis:
We are certainly retaining the option to purchase an additional squadron — a further 18 Joint Strike Fighters and we haven't decided precisely what type it might be — that will be something that will be looked at in the context of the coming Defence white paper.
Why is the reference to 'type' significant? The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter comes in three versions: A, B and C. The A version is built for air forces, because it's designed to take off and land on normal runways. The C version is built for the US Navy; it has a larger wing, a 'tailhook' and other associated gear so that it can take off and land on US aircraft carriers with short runways.
Then there's the B version, the 'jump jet' which is built for the US Marine Corps, UK Royal Navy, and the Italian Navy. It is also designed to take off and land on carriers, but not the carriers used by the US Navy. America's super carriers use 'catapults' to fling fighters off the bow of the ship at high speed. Landing is also at high speed, with a 'tailhook' at the back of the plane catching on an arresting wire, which slows the plane down as soon as it lands.
But the Marines, Royal Navy and Italian Navy don't operate that type of carrier. They have smaller ships with no catapults or arresting wires, meaning fighters need to be able to take-off without the help of a catapult and land vertically, because there is no arresting gear to slow them down.
So when Mr Abbott talks about the 'type' of F-35 we might buy in future, he can't be talking about the C version; only the US Navy needs them. He can only be suggesting that his government is examining the possibility of buying the F-35B jump jet, which presumably we would operate off the Royal Australian Navy's new 'flat tops', the Canberra and Adelaide.
These two ships can be equipped to operate fast jets; Spain flies Harrier jump jets off its almost-identical flat-tops, and both Canberra and Adelaide will have a 'ski jump' to assist take-off of such jets. Nevertheless, it would represent a substantial policy change. The ADF has always said that the Canberra and Adelaide would operate helicopters only, that the ski jumps were being left on just because it would cost more to remove them, and that Australia had no intention of buying the F-35B.
Judging by Mr Abbott's comments, we will learn more once the White Paper is published. But in the meantime, it looks as if the Australian Government is considering re-entering the aircraft carrier club, of which we have not been a member since HMAS Melbourne was retired in 1982. That would be a big strategic shift which will reverberate throughout the region.
One final note on Abbott. In announcing the purchase all up of 72 Joint Strike Fighters, the Prime Minister indicated he was sympathetic to buying more and that there would be a close look at what variant of the JSF an extra squadron might be.
No one has picked this up, but what Abbott was talking about was the possibility of buying short take-off and vertical landing JSFs, which could be placed on the navy’s big LHD ships to transform them in effect into aircraft carriers. Abbott is planning an Australian Defence Force that has much greater power projection capabilities. This will make us a more valuable ally to the US.