Defence Minister Stephen Smith has just told ABC News 24 that Australia is ‘using risk analysis to work out if Australia needs to explore an alternative to the Joint Strike Fighter.’
His comments build very strongly on those he made yesterday, and coincide with clear signs that Democrat and Republican support for the JSF or F-35 has been severely eroded by delays and cost overruns for the project, as well as rising distrust of Lockheed Martin and a media manipulation campaign that looks more like a long running pack of lies with every passing day.
Smith declined to be drawn on the recent assessment of Republican Senator John McCain that the F-35 was an incredibly troubled program that had become a train wreck.
The Defence Minister said “We are monitoring very closely the delivery timetable and costs,” and repeated his comments yesterday that the provisions Australia has prudently made for delays and overruns were now rubbing up against their limits.
After a long history of contradictory and evasive estimates from Lockheed Martin as to the costs of each delivered JSF to Australia, starting with absurd claims of little more than $25 million in today’s AUD values, it is widely reported in the US that the costs of buying and deploying each JSF could exceed $US 200 million. These estimates do not include lifetime supports costs, generally at least equal to acquisition costs.
If Australia were at those rates to acquire 100 F-35s the cost before lifetime support would be $20 billion, all for a machine which is increasingly assessed as potentially inferior in capabilities to Russian and Chinese aircraft which will be deployed before or no later than the JSF.
However Smith yesterday emphasised that Australia was only committed to 14 JSFs, a position no one could have imaged being asserted by a defence minister in the previous history of the project in this country.
Entire careers in the Australian defence establishment have been built on the premise that the JSF was the answer to all of Australia’s air defence needs and would give it continuing air superiority in SE Asia.
It is clear from Smith’s comments that such posturing, and the uncritical endorsement of everything Lockheed Martin had said on the topic by an Australian defence establishment that behaved like a cheer squad for the JSF, is no longer tenable.
In his interview Smith acknowledged the wide ranging potential consequences for Australian defence of the current and fierce US focus on defence spending as Capitol Hill struggles to define and enact deep cuts to public and defence programs.