Concerns about Joint Strike Fighter ignored
Documents released under FoI say former Howard government Minister Senator Robert Hill ignored advice about concerns with the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. Photo: Andrew Taylor
The former Howard government and Air Force chiefs ignored advice from defence officials in 2002 against rushing into the Joint Strike Fighter project amid concerns that too little was known about the aircraft's cost and capabilities.
Documents released under Freedom of Information reveal that officials explicitly advised against signing up to the ''system development and demonstration'' phase of the JSF, which has since been beset by delays, technical problems and cost blowouts.
The officials, from the department's Investment Analysis Branch, also recommended that the Howard government keep its options open in choosing Australia's future combat air craft under the ''Air 6000'' program, rather than lock itself into the JSF, otherwise known as the Lockheed Martin F-35.
''An accurate assessment of the F-35's abilities, and thus the cost-effectiveness of the aircraft in meeting Air 6000 requirements, cannot be determined from the limited information provided by the (United States),'' the officials said in written advice dated March 2002.
The advice to the Defence Capability and Investment Committee, which consisted of top military brass, said it was ''not prudent'' to join the project at that stage, nor to lock into the JSF, ''given the concerns about the project''.
Yet just three months later, then defence minister Robert Hill and Air Force chief Angus Houston announced Australia would join the system development and demonstration phase with an initial $300 million outlay.
''We've decided to do that on the basis of advice from the Air Force that they believe it will meet the capability requirements . . . as a replacement for the FA-18 and the F1-11,'' Mr Hill said.
He also indicated the government was ruling out other bidders for the Air 6000 program, saying, ''we're going into the development phase expecting it to lead to acquisition of aircraft''.
Mr Houston, who was widely regarded as one of the main cheerleaders for the JSF, said at the time the JSF would ''fit beautifully into the structure we're developing'', even though the officials had warned it was ''not possible'' to tell how the aircraft would replace the ageing F-111 and F/A-18 planes because of ''the paucity of information''.
All 51 JSFs in the US fleet had to be grounded temporarily last month after a crack was found in an engine component of one plane. Australia is due to take delivery of its first two JSFs from manufacturer Lockheed Martin in 2014.
Former Labor defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon told Fairfax Media last month that the chiefs were ''obsessed'' with getting the JSF and even tried to thwart his plans to consider other planes.
He spoke of ''the disproportionate influence of those in uniform, both in the former government and the current government'' and said they ''were in love with this project''.
Amid delays in the aircraft, Mr Hill's successor, Brendan Nelson, bought an additional 24 Super Hornet aircraft. The current minister, Stephen Smith, is now weighing buying another 24 Super Hornets.
Mr Hill declined to comment, saying: ''My practice has been not to revisit these things. I don't think that's my job and I don't think it's helpful. My part is history.''
Mr Houston was overseas and could not be reached.