The Joint Strike Fighter Program – has Australia made a $17 billion defense mistake?

There is no question that Australia needs defence capabilities – in a world where “geopolitical risks such as interstate conflict or terrorist attacks are at the forefront”[1] of every news bulletin or web feed of late, as a country we need to have the capability to protect ourselves should the need arise. But at what cost?


In November 2009, the Australian Government approved funding to acquire fourteen F-35A joint strike fighter aircraft (JSF) with another seventy-two to come in stage two. In addition, a third stage is in the works to bring the number of planes to one hundred split across four squadrons to replace the current F/A-18 A/B Hornet planes. [2]


These next seventy-two supposedly next generation fighters are at the cost of $17 billion to the Australian taxpayer with the first to be delivered by 2018.[3] In 2016, the US Defence Department’s Director of Operational Testing stated that the F35 program “is actually not on a path toward success, but instead on a path to failing to deliver the full capabilities for which the department is paying almost $400 billion”.


So, with the US Defence Department conceding that the fighters are not on track, lack performance and have resulted in a $400 billion black hole, what about Australia’s $17 billion?


That same $17 billion invested into the JSF program will contribute in terms of ‘economic impact’ to the Australian economy – which is a huge buzzword of Parliament of course – $1.2 billion per year by 2038. It’s fair to say by the time the fighters are starting to pay themselves back – which it will take 20 years to do so in terms of GDP growth at $1.2 billion per year – they will be obsolete!


What about the supporting industries and employment that are generated thanks to the JSF program? Currently supporting industries employ around 2400 Australians[4] who work to develop, produce and maintain the planes, which according to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is predicted to rise to 5,000 by 2023.[5]


So again, not earth shattering statistics considering the highly technical nature of these planes, primarily employing people who are highly skilled and would easily be getting employment on innovation and technical projects elsewhere – so no real help for the 729,200[6] unemployed Australians now is there?


Let’s talk about that $17 billion figure for a minute; with the F35’s now blowing out to around US$164 million each, surely there is another way? What about purchasing the Advanced Super Hornets, which I might mention “are expected to reach the initial operational capacity for the F-35C in 2019, for around US$79 million each or $9 million to retrofit the existing 24 Australian Super Hornets[7]”.

So, at AUD$17 billion or US$13.3 billion converted at today’s rates[8], that is more than twice the number of Advanced Super Hornets than F35’s for the Australian Air Force, plus upgrading the capabilities of the twenty-four current Super Hornets!


This is not a left winged argument to say that we shouldn’t invest in defence, it is simply stating the fact and demonstrating how much money we have invested into these aircraft – considering to date we only have received two aircraft of the 72 ordered!


There is no dispute that there is a need to spend money on defence, updating Australia’s capabilities and ensuring the protection of our citizens. But $17 billion on planes that don’t work as they should?


At least their capabilities will be unchallenged in the skies, right? Wrong!


In a recent engagement in which US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets shot down a Syrian fighter jet, a missile missed its target, forcing the plane to fire a secondary missile to down the target, which was attacking US-backed forces.


The issue identified was that the F-35A strike fighter carries no more than four air-to-air missiles. Although it can carry more, it loses all its stealth ability when it does. So if an F-35A strike fighter were put in the same position, it would have deployed 50% of its ordinance on one plane, leaving it powerless against additional hostile threats, not to mention the completion of the initial mission.


This may not sound like too much of an issue, however “without that ability to hide in the skies, its relatively poor manoeuvrability, acceleration and speed put it at a disadvantage to most modern Russian and Chinese fighter aircraft designs”[9].


So, what was wrong with the planes we have anyway? The Super Hornets are being used by the US armed forces, with President Donald Trump – on his favourite form of communication, Twitter – recently challenging the JSF program “based on the tremendous cost and overruns of the Lockheed Martin F-35s, I have asked Boeing to price-out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet.”[10]


Boeing is considering a ‘retrofit’ solution to the Super Hornets – which Australia already run & own twenty-four of that could potentially overtake the JSF! I guess we will have to wait and see.


If the USA is not getting what they want out of the hundreds of billions of dollars these planes have cost to develop why would the Australian Air Force benefit from planes that the US possibly will reject? Sounds like a John West Tuna ad!


It brings us back to the initial question, has the Australian Parliament spent $17 billion on something that potentially is not ‘fit for purpose’?


There is no question that spending such a large amount of money on a project that to date has produced nothing but increased costs is an issue. The fact that the USA and ten other nations all have the same planes indicates they all have the same problems to contend with, leaving ten key defence allies with a capability, cost and defence issue to say the least.


In the case of the JSF program, all sides of Australian politics have been led blindly by the USA into something that is blowing significant amounts of tax payers dollars that could be spent correcting many of the social issues of our generation.


Drugs, homelessness, depression, the potential for automation to displace 38% of all current jobs in the market by 2030[11], not to mention our existing unemployed and soon to be unemployed – are we really spending the money on what matters?


The simple answer is no! As a small nation with only 24.78 million people, we’re committing almost 25% of what the USA is spending, and their population is at 321.4 million people and growing. The world’s largest military force is spending on these failed fighters, and Australia is only 13% of its size in terms of population – the logic just isn’t there.


Not a great way to spend the money we work so hard to invest into our thriving and profitable tax system, is it? If you are going to spend our money, spend it properly!



[1] World Economic Forum: The Global Risks Report 2016, 11th Edition, 2016



[4] Economic Impact of the JSP program in Australia, PWC 2017









One thought on “The Joint Strike Fighter Program – has Australia made a $17 billion defense mistake?”

  1. Unfortunately weapon systems are not only becoming more complicated electronically, mechanically intricate and hideously expensive their development times are extending in line with these factors. The F35 buy was made at a time when John Howard was playing deputy sheriff to George Bush’s John Wayne and the ” man of steel” had us firmly in he American posse where we could slip into American equipment anywhere in the world and do our bit. Turns out the the F35s are very expensive and not without their problems and do not meet Australia’s most pressing requesting air defense requirement, long range,large weapon carrying capacity and the ability to operate outside the energies controlled airspace and deliver formidably deverstating stand off weapons. Do not get me wrong the idea that we cannot afford all this expensive defense stuff and we should do it on he cheap will not see us given a pass by a aggressor nation. We need the capabilities of serious deterrence forces but in this case are not seeing that requirement being met.

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