Image via Flickr user San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive
Australia’s alliance with the US is a linchpin of its defence policy. And to have a close relationship with the US is to have a close relationship with the American arms industry. On Tuesday, Australia’s record-breaking €8.5 billion purchase of 58 stealth fighter jets made headlines. Politically the timing seemed poor. The government of Prime Minister Tony Abbottis planning on making cuts to health and welfare in next month’s budget and a large military purchase looks bad. But Australia’s budget is not the driving force behind the decision.
Last week the Dallas Morning News reported that Lockheed Martin is stepping up efforts to sell foreign nations its fifth generation jet, the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF. Lockheed needs foreign sales to act as a sort of financial cushion due to growing concerns about the size of the US Defense budget. Washington is winding down the war in Afghanistan, and automatic budget cuts – caused by the 2013 government shutdown and the Budget Control Act of 2001 – are set to keep defence spending capped over the next five years. This is especially bad news for the F-35 because of the programme’s reputation for budget blowouts.
As reported by Bernard Keane on Crikey, the F-35 Lightning II has been a "procurement nightmare". It’s cost more than double the initial expected investment, been burdened with poor management (the programme’s head was recently sacked), been delayed so much that last year Australia bought more of the old Super Hornet jets to address a shortfall in operational capacity, been derided by numerous official reports, and – to top it all off – last year the fleet was grounded because one of the planes had cracks in the engine mounts, fuselage stiffeners, and bulkhead and wing flanges. To translate for non-technical people, they're not all that great, which the Pentagon all but confimed when they rewrote its performance test so that the dumbed-down superjet could pass.
If the automatic budget cuts go through in the US, the Pentagon is planning on reducing spending on the F-35 by €1.2 billion, buying 13 fewer than planned. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, the officer who oversees the F-35, explained to National Defense magazine (which is run by the National Defense Industrial Association or NDIA) that the fewer F-35s ordered from Lockheed, the greater the cost of each jet. According to the magazine, “Bogdan predicted that an expected surge in orders from foreign buyers will help bring production costs back down."
In other words, Australia to the rescue! Just as other countries – such as Italy, Turkey, and Canada—are considering scaling back their purchases of the jets, Australia is ramping up its acquisition. Not that this is a splurge or an impulse buy; on the contrary, Australia has been involved in the development of the F-35 since 2002. And, except for a hiccup in 2008 when then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commissioned a report into whether the F-22 might better serve Australia’s needs, the plan has always been to update Australia’s aerial arsenal with F-35s.
This is why Opposition Leader Bill Shorten didn’t make political hay out of the purchase, and went the other direction, going so far as to tell ABC radio that the F-35 was "the right way to go,” and that “these defence purchases are necessary for our forward security plans over a number of decades.” If there’s one thing that will always have bipartisan support, it is Australia’s military relationship with the United States government (and, by extension, its armament industry), a fact the Department of Defence’s White Paper makes clear: “Our defence policy is realistic about the limits to self-reliance. Australia continues to rely on significant support from the United States…” and, “ it is very unlikely that a major power would attack Australia without entering into conflict with the United States…” not to mention, “as long as nuclear weapons exist, we rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia.” And to keep the United States on its side, Australia will offer constant support.
At this point you might be wondering why Australia needs fighter jets at all. Perhaps it’s as Abbott said, that we need them as a deterrent and because, “You just don’t know what’s around the corner.” But we can get a better idea of how we’ll use them in the future by examining when and how we’ve used them in the past. The most recent conflicts Australian jets have flown in have been Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, all in a supporting role for wars conducted by the US.
So before you question Australia’s need for fifth generation stealth fighter jets, understand the purchase was never really a debate about “if”, it was, “how many?” And the answer is up to one hundred. Australia has ceased to question its ties with the US; for better or worse the alliance is the bedrock of its foreign policy. If that entails spending a record amount of money on planes while cutting back on grannies, kids and sick people, so be it.
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