As a geek I love toys, big toys, little toys, basically anything that’s fun and interesting. When I first laid eyes on the prototypes that would become the F-35 Lightning II, colloquially known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), I was awestruck. This boxy little craft could evade radar, came in Vertical Take Off & Landing (VTOL) variants, and enough armaments to take down a small country… or so Lockheed-Martin claimed.
It’s more than a decade after I first fired up HotBot (yes, before Google there were other search engines) to find videos of the JSF’s two prototypes, and my opinion of the aircraft has changed dramatically. Basically the JSF is a flying scrap heap; lengthy delays, faulty systems/parts, no stealth in the VHF band, huge blind spots, and lacklustre performance. This all adds up to an estimated US$200-US$300 million mess.
My question is pretty simple: why are we spending upwards of $15 billion on aircraft that will offer no return, cost as much each year we own them, yet not spending a little more on the NBN?
The worst part of this is there are many viable alternatives to these flying pieces of junk that may or may not be delivered. They don’t actually fill the role that Howard, Rudd, and now Abbott are trying to shoehorn them into. The JSF has always been designed to replace aircraft like the A-10 and F-16, and as the name suggests, the JSF is designed for strike capabilities. They are NOT designed for air superiority, I suppose the F/A-18 wasn’t either, and this exemplifies our military’s inability to understand even the basics of equipping ourselves.
In an ever changing world, having the best fit for purpose craft is far more important than kowtowing to our US allies. While it may seem smart to some to sidle up to such a superpower, to me it seems foolish to put one’s eggs in a single diplomatic basket. This is not to say we can’t be friends with the US, just maybe don’t rely on interoperability when equipping our troops.
Both Russia and China have superior aircraft on offer than the JSF, hell, their aircraft are superior to the F-22, beating it in almost every KPI. Yet to the Australian military they are still enemies, not to be trusted, or to have aircraft purchased from.
The sad fact is, even current generation Russian aircraft are superior to the JSF, as exemplified by a table in Air Power Australia‘s run-down of the JSF. For the JSF not to come out on top of the SU-35S should be ringing alarm bells as our neighbours are purchasing quite a number of these.
So why am I trying to link the NBN & the JSF? I think Van Badham put it best on Monday night’s Q&A:
Well, again, it is interesting and I have to bring it up again. I mean that we look at we need the latest and best technology with these joint strike fighters and that’s why we are spending $12 billion on them and another $12 billion in maintenance. And how great would it be if we had the latest and the best technology in terms of the NBN? And can we please start realising that politics and spending, it is all a choice. The choice of the Coalition is to have the latest and the best strike fighters but to have an inadequate and not the latest and the best form of internet structure and I think that raises some really interesting questions about the priorities.
That this government would earmark another $12 billion plus maintenance costs of $380 billion, in today’s money, from 2020 to 2050 (when the aircraft are expected to retire) while claiming that a $20 billion difference is “too much” and “too ambitious” for an NBN*. The key is, the NBN would make the $55 billion back, the almost $400 billion is lost, gone, no way of getting it back. Remember, the maintenance cost is all without including upgrade costs of the JSF.
An amusing part of this is, the predicted lifespan of 30 years is actually less than the predicted lifespan of fibre optic cables of approximately 100 years. Even if we upgraded the NBN ever 12 months at a cost of $2 billion, in today’s money, that would still come out cheaper than these flying disasters.
Are we such a nation of idiots that we can’t see the hypocrisy in spending $400 billion on broken aircraft while destroying the one thing that will actually make a profit for the government. Hell, the profits from the NBN could have been used to offset the ridiculous costs associated with maintaining the JSF.
All is not to be, we will be relegated to third world internet with third rate strike fighters and no air superiority. We can all thank little Johnny Howard for both situations, for if he had listened to telecoms professionals and military experts alike we would have FTTN already, be upgrading to FTTP, and considering our options with military aircraft.
I know many would love to frame the debate in an health vs guns, education vs guns, etc, debate, but the reality is, this is a technology vs technology debate. We are going to buy new aircraft no matter what, just as the NBN is going to be built, eventually, no matter what.
The debate is, as with the NBN, how we go about upgrading our military, not whether we should or shouldn’t spend on it.
My personal opinion is that the JSF is a waste of money; there are better options that cost far less to procure, and far less to maintain. The same cannot be said for the NBN moving to the multi-technology mix (MTM), this will be a costly exercise, will lose money rather than make money, and deliver services that are barely up to scratch now, let alone 5, 10, or 15 years in the future.
This government has a choice on both the JSF and the NBN, unfortunately Australia decided to give the keys to the lodge to a man who has no respect for experts, no respect for the internet, and no respect for Australians.
[* Just to correct the record: the estimated costs are double over the lifetime, not per year, & while my point still stands that positive income associated with the NBN is more worthwhile than a flying lemon, I do admit that this figure is rather high. I do however contest that the cost is merely double over the lifetime of the aircraft as many sources indicate that this cost will increase 2 to 5 fold over the lifetime of the aircraft, so the figure of "$12 billion maintenance costs over the lifetime of the aircraft" is far from correct, if anything we're looking at a total expenditure of just shy of US$100 billion]