The Last Two Liberal Prime Ministers Destroyed Australia’s Defence Capability

The Last Two Liberal Prime Ministers Destroyed Australia’s Defence Capability

by David Archibald, author of Australia’s Defence, Twilight of Abundance, and American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare

18 December 2016


But first an honourable mention to John Howard. He ordered the Army to buy the Tiger helicopter from Airbus instead of the Black Hawk that the Army wanted, which would would also have been US$600 million cheaper. Australia bought 22 Tigers and the Army pretended that they were just wonderful. Well, until they threw in the towel early this year. The Tigers will be retired and we will be getting Apaches instead. What tipped that decision was the Tigers’ inability to communicate with the rest of our weapons systems. It would have cost $30 million per helicopter to rewire them. On top of all their other shortcomings, it was just too much.


Howard’s folly: the Tiger helicopter.

Australia might be severely disadvantaged by lacking functioning helicopters for our Army, but we are actually defenceless without the right fighter aircraft and submarines. Fighter aircraft and submarines are purely defensive weapons. You can’t invade another country with them. But if Australia has enough of them, no other country could invade us either. The big air-sea gap we are blessed with, between us and the nearest potential belligerent, has to be traversed in metal ships and aircraft that can be sunk or shot down, if you have enough of the right things to do the sinking and shooting.

When Labor was last in power, they had no interest in defence and acquisitions were let slide. Rudd did not want to be accused of being weak on defence, so he talked big — 12 submarines for instance — but had no intention of funding them. Things just continued to slide under Labor and we ended up, effectively, with a small force of light infantry that might be suitable for doing guard duty. But one benefit from Labor’s lack of interest in defence was that we were down for getting only 14 F-35s.  The original intent was to get 100 F-35s, but continued delays in getting the thing operational meant that we ended up with 36 Super Hornets to backfill part of the capability gap created by the F-35’s delay.

The real damage to our air defence capability was done in April 2014 by Tony Abbott deciding to up our F-35 purchase by 58. The F-35 costs about US$130 million to build per aircraft. Talk about the cost going down to US$80 million per aircraft is just that – talk. The rework rate in putting the F-35 together is holding at 14%.  That is, 14% of the man-hours spent in making each aircraft are to repair parts damaged during installation, because the F-35 is packed tighter than a head of cabbage. Lockheed Martin is as efficient at making this aircraft as it is ever going to get. As of this date, US$110 billion has been spent on the F-35 program and those costs are to be recouped as an R&D cost on each production aircraft. In the best case scenario, assuming thousands built, that will be at least US$30 million per aircraft taking the total acquisition cost to US$160 million per aircraft.  At the current exchange rate, that works out to $220 million for 13 tonnes of aircraft (just over a third of the cost of 13 tonnes of solid gold).

U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters from the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin AFB, Fla. May 2013

Abbott’s folly: ordering another 58 of these underperformers (see also Is The F-35 Being Kept Alive Just To Fleece The Foreign Buyers?)

And then there is the cost of actually flying the thing: US$42,000 per hour. It will simply be too expensive to give our pilots the 200 hours a year in the cockpit of the aircraft they will be flying in combat (US$8.4 million per pilot per year, or about 15 standard 400 ounce gold bars every year). They will be lucky to get half that, with the effect that the aircraft’s technical advantages will be negated by lack of proficiency in using them. That is only the beginning of the F-35’s deficiencies, most of which would be readily evident to anyone taking an interest in the program.

The advice from the RAAF to the Prime Minister was and remains that the F-35 is a wonderful thing. But there are good reasons not to trust our defence bureaucrats on Russell Hill. The RAAF retired the F-111 for no good cause and to justify what they did, they fabricated a story about maintenance costs. To make sure the F-111s could not come back from the dead and displace the purchase of any F-35s, they plucked the wings off most of them and then buried the remains in a common pit near Ipswich. In doing so they destroyed at least $2,000 million worth of aircraft. The people responsible for that decision should be hunted down and dismissed from the RAAF. They are the same people in favour of the F-35 so it will be no loss.


Gillard’s folly: making sure the F-111s don’t rise from the dead.

Enter the next US President. It looks very much like President Trump will cancel the F-35. He can’t come out and say that at the moment. He has to wait until he is sworn in, his people have been briefed, there is much serious consideration, etc. But he has said that Pentagon acquisition officials involved in the F-35 program will have a lifetime ban on working in the defense industry. That is a strong signal with respect to the fate of the F-35. Australia will be saved from Tony Abbott’s stupid decision to buy another 58 of them by the aircraft’s failure to be built. We still have a big hole to fill in our force structure, but we will have unspent F-35 funds to pay for the fix.

Much the same will happen to Malcolm Turnbull’s stupid decision to opt for French vaporware submarines instead of Japanese ones off the shelf. For much the same capability, we are supposed to get French submarines, yet to be designed, for $4,000 million a copy instead of Japanese ones for $800 million off the production line. While we are waiting for the French ones to turn up, $5,000 million is to be spent keeping our current Collins class submarines going, which is just short of the cost of replacing them with new Japanese submarines. The deal is just as stupid as it appears. There are no redeeming features.

The DCNS Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A design is a conventionally-powered derivative of France’s nuclear-powered Suffren-class submarines.

Turnbull’s folly: The DCNS Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A design is a conventionally-powered derivative of France’s nuclear-powered Suffren-class submarines.

Who was responsible? In the end it was Turnbull’s decision, but he didn’t override advice from the RAN. A few years ago when the submarine replacement process started, the RAN put out a wish list of capabilities that they wanted their next lot of submarines to have. This included things like having the ability to land special forces and other attributes you might use once in a blue moon instead of just concentrating on the business of sinking ships. It seems that tendency came to the fore in the submarine decision and common sense came a distant last.

The result is that instead of having 12 of the best non-nuclear submarines available, Australia will struggle on with six submarines kept afloat by expensive overhauls. As with the F-35s, the French submarines won’t actually arrive and we will have to find something else to fill the capability gap. Hopefully the Japanese won’t be too upset with us and will sell us what we need, but we will probably have to make payment in full before they start cutting steel.