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Reader riposte: JSF buyers beware

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COMMENTS

17 November 2009 11:17

Eric Palmer, who blogs on military issues here, writes in response to Hugh White's post defending the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF):

Australia is not ready to procure the F-35. Senior Defence management has not done the homework needed to provide government with the relevant facts. It says right on the F-35 JSF shoulder patch, 'Lethal, Survivable, Supportable, Affordable.' This early in the program, there is not yet one shred of proof that any of these goals are true.

In US fiscal year 2009, the F-35 flight test program was supposed to have over 300 test flights done. We got a few dozen. We are now into the second month of the US fiscal year 2010, where the program is supposed to have over 1200 test flights done — plus the make-up work from FY2009. In the face of these delays, F-35 program officials claim that a significant amount of computer simulation makes flight-testing less important. The problem with this thinking is that not one complex manned aircraft program has been successful without a lot of flight-testing.

F-35 program officials spare no platitude or misleading statements when trying to sell the aircraft. For example, briefings to prospective customers state that it is cheaper to maintain than existing fighter aircraft.They claim that it is 400 percent better in air-to air combat than existing aircraft.They claim it can be acquired for the same price as existing aircraft. The sellers of the aircraft are putting these claims forward with no performance to back it up.

The marketing of the F-35 resembles a Ponzi scheme; pay in now when the prices are high and there will be big rewards on the return of investment later in home industry benefits — if only you have faith that it will work.

Some of the other details surrounding what could be Australia's most expensive defence purchase require examination. When Australia and Canada procured their F-18s in the 1980s, one important issue was the ability of having a two-engine fighter aircraft when over vast wasteland or large bodies of water. The Hornet community has time and again had to put one of the engines back to idle or turn it off when there were problems, leading to a successful return to base on the remaining engine. The unproven F-35 has one engine. Any supposed financial benefit the F-35 has for Australia goes down the drain after you dump one or two of these gold-plated birds due to an adverse engine event.

Consider the value of stealth. In 1999 during the NATO bombing campaign of Yugoslavia, a US F-117 stealth fighter was shot down. While it may have been a fluke, what the maker of the aircraft at the time (Lockheed Martin) stated is important. That is, that even a simple turning maneuver can increase the radar cross section by a factor of 100 or more.

While having some stealth may help, at what price should Australia try and acquire such capability? And what kind of stealth capability do you get for your money with the F-35? It will be 'affordable', export-friendly stealth. The US is not going to give away the keys-to-the-kingdom of its top-draw stealth technology. After all, why is there all the fuss over claims of the F-22 not being exportable?

Once you take away the concept of stealth from the F-35, you have capabilities that can be put on any conventional fighter aircraft today.

The F/A-18F Super Hornet that is being purchased by Australia has advanced radar and other similar capabilities to F-35 claims. What's more, Australia's Super Hornet has a better electronic defence system combined with the latest towed decoy. Towed decoys proved to be of high value for aircraft survivability for Allied Force in 1999. If stealth is compromised on the F-35, it has only limited jamming provided by the radar and some disposable decoys.

There may be a time when the F-35 aircraft is the right choice for the RAAF. But this should not be until it has a proper amount of flight testing and known qualities to make an informed decision. Given the glacial pace and high costs of the F-35 development program, we won't be in that position for a very long time.

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