Can we afford not to buy Joint Strike Fighters?

DEBATE surrounding Australia's air combat capability has often been emotive and controversial, most recently in relation to Australia's acquisition of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

The decision announced on April23, to buy another 58 JSFs in addition to the 14 already approved in 2009, has reignited debate on the suitability and affordability of fighter aircraft that are the very best of breed.

Unlike bombers and attack aircraft that focus on ground targets, fighter aircraft are primarily designed for air-to-air combat.

A fighter's main purpose is to establish air superiority over a battlefield, a sensible and necessary precursor to winning the ground fight.

Modern fighters are fast, stealthy, sophisticated - and expensive.

The JSF fits all those descriptors. But it's still the best option available to Australia.

Australia's unique and enduring geo-political circumstances demand a balanced defence capability that includes the best fighter aircraft we can incorporate into our arsenal.

We remain the world's only island continent, positioned on the cusp of the most globally dynamic region.

Air supremacy is shaped by multiple, complementary factors, including pilot training and skill, sound and effective doctrine, and the overall quality of the fighter aircraft itself.

Great pilots are made exponentially better by great aircraft and doctrine.

The reverse is also true.

Recent negative commentary about the JSF doesn't reflect the improved status of the program and its importance in helping deliver an effective air combat capability to Australia's Defence strategy.

General Mike Hostage, Commander US Air Forces Air Combat Command, said last February: "I am going to fight to the death to protect the F-35, because I truly believe that the only way we will make it through the next decade is with a sufficient fleet of F-35s".

Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, program executive officer for the JSF Program, said earlier this month in Australia that: "This is a different program to the one it was a few years ago. I can't change where it's been but I can change where it is going."

It's important that uninformed or unbalanced criticism shouldn't derail a critical key element in future Australian Defence capability.

More positively, Australians should note that the JSF project is now on track to produce a devastatingly effective first-rate military capability, and one which any future Australian adversary will and should always ponder with great caution.

And, finally, to the issue of cost; considered last, because while the JSF will be expensive, it won't be prohibitively so.

In any case, cost shouldn't be the sole determinant where matters of national defence are concerned.

The reality is that a first-rate military capability is always expensive but not nearly as expensive as military defeat.

It's useful in defence or military issues to view matters through the eyes of a potential adversary.

Where Australia is concerned, particularly from the perspective of its continental defence, an informed conventional aggressor would likely think twice about and fear two Australian military capabilities over all others: state-of-the-art submarines and airpower.

And while the actual live use of either capability has now all but completely receded from the living memory of contemporary Australians, an enemy planner still sees them as game-changing deterrents.

In the end, debate on the JSF can perhaps be reduced to a simple observation and a question.

The observation: that Plato was right when he said that only the dead have seen the end of war.

And the question: can a sovereign nation ever be too prepared for the certitude of conflict sometime during the life of the JSF?

Andrew Nikolic is the Federal Member for Bass and a former Australian Army officer. He is a former First Assistant Secretary of International Policy Division, and a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

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