Fighter aircraft plan marred by a strategic mistake

I'm afraid what follows gets a bit technical in parts, but please stick with it because the dollars - and there's a lot of them - are all coming out of your pocket. Perhaps more importantly, we're not just talking about huge sums of money here. The decision that cabinet will soon announce is both so vital, and so expensive, that it will shape the contours of our defence for the next 30 years.

Australia's security depends on air power. Of course, there are other services as well and everyone does have a role to play. Nevertheless, the reality is we rely on the air force to control our sky. As long as the RAAF is flying, we can stop any opponent lodging forces in Australia. It's as simple as that.

Fast jets have, for the past half-century, provided the keystone of this capability. First it was the pigs, the F-111s; then F/A-18 Hornets. Next it will be brand spanking new F-35s, the Joint Strike Fighters. That much has been decided. The only questions still to be answered are; how many will we buy, and at what cost?

Let's begin with the money because there's some good news. I watched as the first two wings were slowly inching their way along the factory floor in Dallas (signed by some of the RAAF pilots who will fly them). It was obvious even then that they would be more expensive than an Airfix model, but the actual price we've paid was astounding. These aircraft cost a cool $130 million. Each. If you say that fast enough it doesn't sound like a lot of money, but it actually is. Six or so aircraft at that price, for example, would equal a brand new hospital.

That's why you can probably imagine the shock that rippled around the press room when the nice man from Lockheed spoke (he was a general, actually, and he said he really shouldn't be telling us this, but hey, guess what? He would!). The aircraft won't cost $130 million after all. They will be - and this was the big surprise - cheaper.

Yes, now we can have one of these beauties for (just) $85 million, although I'm not sure if you get to choose the colour scheme for such a knockdown, bargain basement price. Still, it's a mad, mad, sale and it's exceptionally good news, because we can afford more planes, as long as we buy more.


Confused? Don't be. It is all ''economies of scale''. The more we buy, the cheaper they are - just don't think about cutting back on the number because then the price will zoom back up. So each of our three front-line squadrons will be able to have 24 aircraft, rather than 12. But forget about those hospitals.

The other advantage of buying the JSFs is that Tony Abbott has already made a firm commitment to increase defence spending to 2 per cent of gross domestic product by (insert your preferred date here). That's the great thing about buying such equipment; make a decision and it shows up on budget documents at once, even if you don't pay until later. It also guarantees the government will be able to meet its spending commitment.

The betting is we're going to get aircraft for three squadrons (plus spares and trainers), and we'll buy them in one lump (because they're cheaper that way). The pay-off for Lockheed is it gets a solid order, and the RAAF is happy because this purchase will mean it remains the dominant player in the region.

There's only one issue that still niggles.

The people who are making the decisions are still thinking in terms of the Battle of Britain. They're dreaming of fighter pilots wearing silk scarves running across cut-grass tarmacs to their Spitfires, instead of grappling with some of the new challenges likely to confront us in the 21st century.

We are buying the ''A'' version of the fighter, the traditional version. The ''C'' version is a carrier jet, but although (for tens of millions more) the two landing helicopter dock ships we are buying from Spain could be fitted with catapults and arresting gear like aircraft carriers (Lockheed has done feasibility studies), there are no plans to add this capability. We are not planning to buy any of the Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) ''B'' versions of either. This is a disastrous strategic mistake.

This means flexibility in how the aircraft can be used will be severely limited. Without a long runway, the plane just can't get airborne. This is a critical weakness in an era of precision guided munitions. Shooting the planes out of the sky may, as advertised, prove impossible for any adversary - although that is exactly why they will be searching for other vulnerabilities which can also render the Joint Strike Fighters ineffective. Lacking the STOVL capability means the aircraft can't be forward deployed to other areas where our forces might be operating, such as small islands or underdeveloped countries. More time will be spent burning up fuel in transit. Response time will be slower.

If we are buying 70-odd aircraft anyway, it would make good sense to have at least one of the squadrons with this capability. Yet the RAAF hasn't even presented the minister with this option - it was ruled out years ago. No one is been prepared to put it up again, despite the increasing strategic evidence that this might be exactly what our country needs.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.