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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 01:50 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 01:50 | SYDNEY

The mystery behind Australia's 100 JSFs



21 June 2010 13:45

Confession number one. Rodger, blame me. I think I may be the culprit who came up with that suspiciously round number of 100 JSFs.

It goes back to the 2000 Defence White Paper. One of the key questions we wrestled with ten years ago was how much money to allow in the long term Defence Capability Plan (DCP) for the replacement of the F-18s and F-111s.

We didn’t need a precise figure, correct to the nearest million dollars. But we did need a reasonable idea to the nearest billion. To get that number we had to make two decisions: what broad kind of aircraft we expected to buy, and how many. 

The key issue in the first of these decisions was whether to go for an evolved fourth-generation aircraft like the F-18 Superhornet, or jump to a fifth-generation aircraft, of which the JSF seemed the only possible choice. 

This choice hinged on a simple question: did Australia want the capacity to operate at acceptable levels of risk against the kinds of forces that major Asian powers were expected to develop over coming decades? Or would we limit ourselves to being able to operate against the kinds of forces we expected to see in Southeast Asia?

For thirty years, Australian forces had not been expected to operate against major Asian powers. But we recommended that as Asia’s strategic order became more fluid, and major power capabilities started to grow, Australia needed forces able to operate against major-power forces — either as part of a coalition, or (much less probably) alone in defence of our own approaches. Moreover it seemed to us (we may have been wrong) that we needed a fifth-generation aircraft to do that. So we recommended to government that they plan on the basis of the JSF.

The decision on numbers was easy. We expected that whatever we bought would replace both the F-18s and the F-111s. We had 71 F-18s and some 30 F-111s — so approximately 100 planes.  We therefore proposed as a basis for planning to allocate enough money in the DCP for 100 new JSF. 

That was not, of course, an adequate basis for deciding how many JSF we would really need, but it was I think an adequate basis to determine how much money to the nearest billion we needed to allocate to the job. The fact that the number we chose as an initial planning assumption has survived until now tells you something rather unsettling about Defence capability planning.

But Rodger, don’t assume that if the number is wrong, it is because 100 is too many. I think it is much more likely to be too few, if Australia aspires to the strategic weight of a middle power in the Asian Century. That nice round number did make a very important point: just because we were buying more expensive and sophisticated aircraft, did not mean we needed fewer of them.

On the contrary, in a more complex and quite possibly more contested region, where Australia’s ‘technological edge’ is vanishing, Australia’s strategic weight will decline unless our most critical capabilities — including air combat and strike — expand. Numbers matter.

Confession number two. I was also involved, at least on the sidelines, in the decision to cut Service Headquarters to 100. Maybe it was dumb — certainly it didn’t work, because our aim was to send some messages, and those messages didn’t get through, and still haven’t.

I am no fan of the $20 billion Strategic Reform Program, but I could not agree, Rodger, with your suggestion that we should cut front-line force numbers to save Defence the bother of making savings back in the headquarters. It’s a matter of priorities.  

Photo by Flickr user alicialee17, used under a Creative Commons license.

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