Undated company image of the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter.
My trip to America was very nice, thanks for asking. I had a lovely time, flying across the US and enjoying classified briefings on all the sorts of things that excite journalists who write about national security issues. The huge corporation manufacturing our shiny new Joint Strike Fighter, Lockheed Martin, outdid itself, and that's really saying something.
Although this, in itself, poses a question. Arms manufacturers aren't widely known for random acts of kindness. So, what was behind this sudden, spontaneous, generosity? To answer that question it's necessary to look below the surface. There's a reason for the corporation's sudden demonstration of love towards fiercely independent journalism (for which this column is renowned).
So, first, let's get the technical stuff out of the way. The most recent issue of the magazine Vanity Fair is only the latest example of media outlets pretending they have penetrated the classified wall to discover the ''real story'' about the JSF's performance. It's a good tale. Audiences love narratives about evil corporations gouging money and providing inferior goods. Nevertheless, and particularly if you examine the allegations in detail, they do rather tend to fall apart. Stories about the fighter's problems say more about the way journalism works than they do about the top-secret aircraft itself.
If everything's going well there's no story. Problems do make a story. In its early development years the JSF program was plagued with difficulties. This is the first fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Designed to push the boundaries in every way it requires an entirely new way of thinking about aerial warfare.
Now, I'm not competent to judge what I've seen and heard but others are. The technical experts (and not just the ones working for Lockheed) seem genuinely excited by the aircraft's capabilities. Those who understand these things (like the planes apparently startling ability to ''pull seven g's as soon as it's in the air'' and a capacity to ''create a shared network conversation with other assets, providing a remarkable transparency of the battle space'') were all nodding excitedly and displaying the eager enthusiasm of a teenager on a first date.
There have been developmental problems, but these seem to have been overcome. That's where a bit of history is relevant.
In a few weeks' time it will be November; exactly 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. We all know about the motorcade, and the shooting, but what's been forgotten is the Australian link to his death. That morning JFK was in Fort Worth to announce details of the US's agreement to sell us another revolutionary aircraft, the F-111. That plane was made at the same plant as the JSF and, just like our current aircraft, was heavily criticised at the time of purchase. Back then the bomber was nicknamed the ''pig'', but from the minute it entered service it offered a spectacular breakthrough in capability - something that only an aircraft designed at the very edges of technical possibility could possibly hope to emulate.
The more you understand the JSF, the more stories about its supposed underperformance are reminiscent of those vague conspiracy theories surrounding the death of JFK. According to these there was actually a ''second shooter'', as well as the actual assassin. This shooter's role was to make sure the idealistic young president (who was supposedly threatening the military-industrial complex) really was ''taken out''. According to this theory the real killer fired from a grassy knoll overlooking the motorcade.
The only problem is it's not true and no number of movies will make it true. It can't be disproved but that doesn't mean it's correct. And it's much the same with the invented intrigues surrounding the JSF. This suffered similar setbacks to that original F-111 program but good people, not just those who have reason to spruik the program, assure us it's now back on track and better than ever.
This is the key to understanding my trip. The real purpose wasn't really to convince us that the jet is terrific. Lockheed's confident enough of the feedback it's getting from its customer, the RAAF, not to worry about that. The source of concern lies elsewhere.
This is where the politics comes in. Labor committed, in both its defence white papers, to buying 72 JSFs. The Coalition has similarly gushed about the purchase's necessity. Nothing else can do what the JSF does. But the crunch comes in March. This is the date when numbers and timing of the buy have to be announced. Unfortunately, there's a new fiscal environment. The chill winds of spending freezes are flicking around Russell Hill.
Announcing that you're spending big money on the fighter - even though it's vital and the money committed won't have any impact on the budget for years to come - doesn't look good at a time when the government is cutting elsewhere. The temptation is to save money by shaving the purchase to, say, 54. That would be a mistake.
The fighter is good; but quantity has a quality of its own. We need three squadrons to cover our north. Two just won't do the job. We have obtained other aircraft to make up for the delay in delivery and there will be the temptation to assert these can stand in for the extra JSFs. Judging from the briefings, that's not the case.
Better qualified people than myself will take this decision. It's just important they base their decision on military grounds, not the perceived need to save money.
Nicholas Stuart travelled to America courtesy of Lockheed Martin.