Just when the RAAF will take delivery of its fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, an acquisition foreshadowed in the 2009 Defence white paper, is a question that has exercised a great many minds at Russell and on Capital Hill in recent years. The 2009 white paper envisioned that Australia would take delivery of its first JSF in 2014, and that the first squadron to fly the aircraft would be ready for operations in 2018. At least three JSF squadrons were expected to be in service in 2021. Well-documented delays in development and testing of the F-35 in the United States mean these targets will not be met. Indeed, the 2013 Defence white paper, a draft of which was leaked to the media recently, goes so far as to suggest that the RAAF will have taken delivery of just two F-35s by 2020.
The delay will have repercussions for the RAAF's ongoing air combat capability, and some bearing on Australia's future strategic defence posture. The good news, if any is to be taken from this saga of delay and cost-overrun, is that steps have already been taken to mitigate the risk of a capability gap opening up as a result of the RAAF's current front-line F/A-18 Hornet aircraft being pensioned off before the arrival of the F-35. In one of its last major defence acquisitions, the Howard government decided to spend $6 billion acquiring 24 Super Hornet aircraft. The Rudd government reviewed the decision shortly after coming to power in 2007, and though professional military judgments about the wisdom of the purchase were mixed, elected not to cancel the deal.
The pessimistic forecast in the 2013 white paper is likely to increase pressure on the Gillard government to buy more Super Hornets to plug any perceived gaps in the RAAF's capability. Indeed, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced before Christmas that a letter of request had been sent to the US government for the possible purchase of 24 more aircraft to supplement the two squadrons of F/A-18F Super Hornets that were recently declared to have reached final operational capability.
As a consequence of the growing complexity of modern combat equipment and systems, getting major defence equipment acquisitions delivered on time and on budget has become increasingly problematic in recent years - and the authors of the 2013 white paper are wisely circumspect about when the JSF may enter service with the air force.
The RAAF has been caught short like this before. As a result of delays in the delivery of the General Dynamics F-111C, a sophisticated swing-wing aircraft still under development when it was ordered in 1963, the Australian government decided to accept the offer of 24 new F-4E aircraft as a stop-gap measure. That decision may have been politically controversial, but the Phantoms proved popular with the RAAF's air and ground crews and more than capable in the air. Moreover, the Menzies government was able to lease, rather than buy, the aircraft. It's an option the Gillard government - struggling to contain the blowout in its projected 2012-13 budget estimates and now faced with having to buy more Super Hornets - can only dream of being offered.
An unclean record
A safety audit of Canberra dry-cleaning businesses initiated by the collapse of two people at a shop in Woden who breathed in carbon monoxide fumes generated by an adjoining dry cleaners earlier this month has revealed evidence of yet more hazardous work practices in the ACT. Indeed, so dangerous were the problems uncovered in the six businesses inspected thus far by WorkSafe ACT that Work Safety Commissioner Mark McCabe has declared the dry-cleaning industry to be potentially a greater work safety offender than the construction sector. That this should be the case is an indictment of the attitudes of some ACT business owners and employers.
The hazards inherent in the chemical solvents used in dry-cleaning are, of course, well known and proprietors are required by law to keep their business premises well ventilated and free of noxious fumes. That inspectors also found dry-cleaning businesses ''riddled'' with electrical problems and equipment maintenance problems suggest many proprietors are failing to monitor exhaust systems and associated equipment. It's a requirement they and indeed the proprietor of any business involving the use chemicals or other hazardous materials must heed.