In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the Tactical Fighter Experiment, or TFX project created at the behest of then Secretary for Defence, Robert McNamara, spawned the F-111 which Australia flies derivitives of today. That project was intended to produce a multi-service air superiority fighter aircraft to suit the needs of both air force and naval arms of the US military. It succeeded on the former, but failed miserably on the latter. The F-111a went on – after some fatalities during combat testing in Vietnam and discoveries that the brand new variable geometry of the airframe was far from fail-safe – to become one of the world’s most successful all-weather strategic fighter-bombers. Doubtless, it’s this success and ability to be so many things in one package which has seen Australia maintain it’s aging fleet of F-111 aircraft in the face of much urging to update.
The TFX project failed because it was found, after enormous expense to the then US government, General Dynamic Corporation and Grumman Aviation, to be a failed concept. In short, it was impossible to create an aviation package which would do everything the air force wanted, while meeting and exceeding the demands placed upon a naval carrier-borne air fleet. This failure spawned the Grumman F-14 ‘Tomcat’, which in its turn went on to become a mainstay aircraft of the US navy.
The JSF is yet another attempt by those in the US military/industrial complex to create an aircraft which will be all things to all services. Supposedly with significant cost savings. Clearly, no-one in the complex remember’s the lessons of history. Certainly not Brendan Nelson, nor the former Howard government which signed on as an international partner, coughing up the cash to join, doubtless at the urging of the US Bush administration. With the ever-lengthening production difficulties of the F-35, many of those international partners, Australia included, are now re-assessing options. Australia has declined to sign actual purchase contracts, opting to wait until late 2008 and the so-called ‘second pass’ assessment of the development program before deciding to buy or not buy. This is despite the huge sums already outlayed, and the impending cost of substitute, short-term fill-ins for the F-111 fleet, Nelson’s knee-jerk decision to contract for 24 F-18F Super Hornet aircraft. A decision which the new Labor government has indicated it may not proceed with, incurring an additional A$6b in breach penalties.
It’s not the fault of the aircraft, it’s developers or the leading edge technology embodied in the design that all of these difficulties and bad press have befallen it. The simple fact remains that the F-35, as presented and designed, is not a suitable replacement for the F-111 and the tasks Australia’s defence forces require of it. The F-35 is not an all-weather strategic fighter-bomber, although I have no doubts that when it eventually enters active service in or around 2014, it will be modified, re-designed and amended to become just that. At what additional cost to the Australian tax-payer remains in the realm of imagination. The fault for the program delays and massive cost over-runs lies entirely with those in the US military/industrial complex who convinced their political masters that a previously failed experiment could be made to work fifty years after the last attempt was abandoned. Clearly, our own politicians didn’t pay heed to advice they were doubtless given at the time by those who remembered the F-111 and it’s long delayed arrival into the RAAF inventory.
I’d say we will wind up buying the JSF because of the potentially adverse political implications of not doing so. There are other options, but doubtless other cost factors as well. Given that Australia is, to all intents, a dedicated US product buyer, those other options are virtually out of the question. What is in question is whether we’re facing a hideously expensive purchase of what will eventually wind up being an inadequate white elephant. Certainly many will point to the longevity and suitability of the F-111, without taking into account the on-costs of the upgrades, rebuilds and the leasing of aircraft stored at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, for cannibalising. As successful as the F-111 has been as a marque, it’s undoubtedly been a financial yoke for Australia’s RAAF.
Ought we not be buying something closer to the specifications we want, which is tried and tested, and which won’t require long-term reservation of parts and serviceability, between when we eventually buy something, and when we need to buy something again to replace it? I believe so.