The following article “For security’s sake, Joint Strike Fighter is way of the future” by Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor, was published in The Australian on March 2, 2013.
For security’s sake, Joint Strike Fighter is way of the future
Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor
March 2, 2013
In the middle of this year, Defence Minister Stephen Smith will make a crucial decision. He will announce either that Australia is buying another squadron of 24 F-18 Super Hornets, or that we will stick with the plan to have an operational squadron of F-35s, the Joint Strike Fighter, by the end of the decade or a bit before.
In many ways, this is a decision fundamental to Australia’s future. It is a choice, really, between the future and the past. It goes to what sort of defence force we intend to have, and even to what sort of society we intend to be.
There is a lot of controversy about the JSF. Like every significant technological advance in military aircraft it has had a good share of problems and delays. These can be difficult for the layman to assess. But a few common sense tests can be applied. The JSF is being introduced as the main combat aircraft for the US air force, navy and marines.
Unless the shape of the world we live in has completely upended itself, the US air force, navy and marines will not fly an inferior aircraft. They will fly the best. And the best will be the JSF.
It is a 5th-generation stealth fighter. The Super Hornet is a 4th-generation plane. The Super Hornet is very good, but there is really no comparison.
Some of the critics of the JSF say it can’t turn quite as quickly as some of its competitors and therefore it might lose a dogfight. In this, they are failing to understand the nature of the technological advance the JSF represents.
Think of it this way. When aircraft carriers started to make their first appearance, the proponents of traditional battleships might have argued their superiority. If you lined up a battleship against an aircraft carrier separated by 500m of water, then the battleship’s superior guns and rapid fire ability would have destroyed the aircraft carrier.
You could argue, as the critics of the JSF argue (and this criticism was preposterously presented as fact in a ludicrous Four Corners episode recently), that in a dogfight, the JSF might lose.
But 5th-generation fighter technology is not designed for traditional dogfights. A dogfight is like a knife fight in a telephone booth – even if you win, you’ll sustain a lot of damage. Just as the carrier would have lost to the battleship up close, the problem for the battleship was that the carrier never came close. The carrier could stand off, hundreds of kilometres away, and destroy the battleship with planes before it could ever fire a shot in anger. The battleship was obsolete.
The air force has a saying: know first, shoot first, kill first. That’s what the JSF will do every time. Though smaller than the Super Hornet, the JSF has a much longer range. It is a stealth aircraft, which means it is extremely difficult to detect by radar or any other method. While a 4th-generation fighter is looking for the JSF, the JSF, full of sensors and generating and accessing elaborate information networks, will destroy it.
The ADF has conducted a number of reviews of the JSF and they come to the same conclusion. It’s the best plane for us.
Angus Houston, one of the most respected chiefs of the Defence Force we have had, and before that a chief of the air force, wrote recently of the JSF: “It was the only 5th-generation multi-role combat aircraft and the advantages it presented in terms of stealth, advanced sensors and avionics, commonality with the US, a future upgrade path and economic benefits from being a small part of a very large project were clear … The other aircraft options were mature, off-the-shelf, third/fourth-generation aircraft with reasonably well known performance characteristics that … were approaching the end of their upgrade paths and provided limited future growth potential to face future threats.”
The Super Hornet will soon go out of production. It is owned only by the US navy and the Australian air force. No one else has bought it.
The US navy, which if it stood alone would be about the fourth biggest air force in the world, will start retiring its Super Hornets in 2025, but it will keep some in service until the 2030s. The US air force and marines will go solely to JSFs.
Australia has a very small defence force. When we make big investments we need to get it right. Because of delays with the JSFs, the Howard government bought a squadron of 24 Super Hornets, to supplement the 71 “classic Hornets”, which make up the bulk of our fast jet fleet. This was a prudent purchase and the Labor government, also sensibly, has upgraded a number of the Super Hornets with the “Growler” electronic warfare capability. This allows the planes to suppress air defences and a number of other radars. But there is an absolute limit to how far you can take a 4th-generation plane. Many of the JSF’s capabilities are classified and secret, but everyone who sees them wants them.
Australia’s military doctrine rests on a few basic considerations. We are rich but with a very small (dangerously small, in my view) population. And we are intimate US allies. We use our wealth and access to US technology to keep a technological edge over our neighbours.
The government is considering another 24 Super Hornets with a view to getting some JSFs some time in the future, and eventually running a mixed fleet. But given the length of time we keep planes in service – 40 years for the F-111s – and the dire state of the defence budget, it would probably be many years, 2025 at the absolute earliest, before we ever got any JSFs.
In the long run, this would leave us with an inferior air force and higher costs. An air force, by say 2035 or 2040, of 48 Super Hornets and 50 JSFs would be vastly inferior to an air force of 100 JSFs. As well, it would be more expensive to have two separate training and maintenance operations and to integrate two radically different planes into single-mission capabilities. More important, many of our wealthy neighbours will have JSFs or something like them. Japan has committed to a substantial JSF purchase. Given that, it is difficult to see South Korea sticking with a 4th-generation plane while Tokyo has the 5th generation. The Singaporeans are said to favour the JSF, especially the short take off and landing version, which gives them the ability to use even some of their roads as runways if necessary, and thus get round one of their vulnerabilities, that their air fields could be attacked.
More importantly, both China and Russia are very hard at work on 5th-generation fighters. They are well behind the Americans and one beauty of the JSF for Australia is that we become automatically locked into the continual upgrade path, especially software upgrades, to which the Americans will devote huge resources.
If we go for the Super Hornet we decide, deliberately, to have a second-tier air force, to be unable to do the things for ourselves that we need to do and have always wanted to do in the past.
The first JSF operational squadron has been working out in the US in recent months. The US marines have scheduled their first full deployment of fully operational JSFs for 2015/16. Of course there are teething problems, but the question is this: do we invest in the future or in the past? Do we care enough about our own security to operate the best?