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The Recurring Questions About the Joint Strike Fighter

In 2002 the Howard Government made the decision to purchase up to 100 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) from the United States of America, making it the largest single defence purchase in the history of Australia. Now, a decade on, the JSF program is struggling to deal with major flaws in capabilities and the project is at least 5 years behind schedule. And to top it all off, the original cost of the jet has gone from $40 million each to almost $130 billion dollars per aircraft.

The troubled JSF program was the subject of a Four Corners documentary on Monday night which shows that the problems surrounding the construction of the plane are continuing. When it all boils down, the same questions are being asked about the program that have been for years now. But the questions become even more relevant with every mishap and every delay in the delivery of the Joint Strike Fighter.

The overriding question is: Should we have purchased the fighter jet when we did? But the situation involving the procurement of the JSF is far more complex. Another important question is: Should we have put the purchase of new aircraft out to tender? The final very important question is: Would a tender process have improved the situation?

There is absolutely no question that the decision is a budgetary disaster, with the cost per aircraft ballooning by about $90 billion dollars. We have had to purchase 24 Super Hornets as interim aircraft while we await the delivery of the F-35. Due to domestic budgetary constraints we have delayed delivery of twelve of the aircraft, but those delays will be trumped by the design delays.

In short, the government should not have made the F-35 procurement decision when they did. The decision to purchase was made too early and, according to a former Defence official interviewed by Four Corners, based on a reportedly persuasive conversation former ADF Chief Angus Houston had with a defence official from the United States of America. The government should have waited until there was more concrete information on the aircraft. Word of mouth is not particularly strong grounds for making decisions about buying new military capabilities.

The question of a tender process is both simple and complex. It is simple in the sense that a tender process would have been the most prudent option for what was the most significant single defence purchase made by an Australian government.

A formal tender process would have given Australia options, even if the JSF still turned out to be the most sought after option after competitive bidding. More importantly, there would have been greater oversight of the decision-making process. Competitive bidding would have also driven down cost somewhat and that would have been helpful given the cost blowout over the last decade.

But the shambles that is the F-35 purchase might not have been avoided under a competitive bidding regime. What we are dealing with is, above all, a manufacturing and design problem. There is absolutely no guarantee that competition in the bidding process would have meant the absence of flaws in the aircraft’s design. In fact, we can be certain that a bidding process would have had no impact on the design of the plane.

The distinct lack of process is striking when it comes to the Joint Strike Fighter. Even without knowing what the documentary revealed, we should acknowledge there have been problems with the procurement of the JSF. We should have started a tender process leading up to the 2002 decision which still could have been made. We would have saved some money, but could have easily encountered the same problems unless we had bought an aircraft already under production.

The funny thing is, for all the extra money and time, we should still end up with a very advanced air capability at the end of the drawn out process – providing the technology is not superseded.

Merry Christmas to All

‘Tis the day before Christmas and all through the house
There is family who are stirring, making food that tastes grouse.

The year has whizzed by. It feels like it has only been a few months, maybe half a year since I started this blog.

And now it’s Christmas Eve. The season is a time for family, for sharing both presents and love, as well as some bloody good grub. It’s also a time to think of those we have lost and the impact they have had on our lives.

Christmas is also a time to remember those less fortunate than us, and to give what we can to them.

We must also give thanks to our armed forces serving overseas away from their families. They have loved ones in Australia who will be apprehensive, who will be worried this Christmas.

I too must thank you all for reading, regular, semi-regular and casual readers alike.

Merry Christmas to all, right and left. I look forward to getting back to writing about politics and sport for you all early in the new year.

A Necessary Apology Delivered Too Soon

Today the Defence Minister Stephen Smith stepped up to the Despatch Box to apologise for decades of cases of reported abuse, mostly of a sexual nature, within the Australian Defence Force. The issue is as much about the fact that the abuse was institutionalised as it was about the response which has been found to have often been poor, even non-existent.

This morning too, in the wake of Stephen Smiths apology on behalf of the Department of Defence, the Chief of the Defence Force, David Hurley, made a similar televised apology.

In terms of significant political issues which have arisen, discussed or been implemented during this, the 43rd parliament, the response was sensibly bipartisan.

There was no questioning of the validity, the reasons and consequences of making the apology as their had been with the indigenous apology. The Opposition Defence spokesperson in the House of Representatives just rose and responded with an equally compassionate and heartfelt statement of regret for events that had transpired. That was followed by a pledge to stamp out institutionalised abuse and statement that all that can be done to cut down abuse will be done.

The apology itself was decades in the making. The delivery of the apology however, in the scheme of things, was swift. In fact the apology was made too fast. On the same morning the apology was announced, Mr Smith walked into the parliament to say sorry to those in the ADF that have been the victim of abuse over recent decades.

So often, issues around the timing of events and policies have plagued the Gillard Government. Again today, timing failed the Labor Party on this issue.

There is no debating  that an apology should not have been made. It is the least the government could do after a long period of institutionalised abuse that was either ignored or wrongfully accepted as part of the organisation’s culture. But that apology should certainly have not been made today, even though reports surfaced late last week that such a statement to parliament was firmly on the political agenda.

Victims and their families should have had days or weeks’ notice that an apology was being made, not just hours and an apology even later today should never have been contemplated. Those who have suffered should have been afforded the time to organise travelling to Canberra for the apology, just as those who have been apologised to in the past for other wrongs were.

If those who had endured abuse did not want to attend, they should have at least been given advanced notice that the apology was to be given, so that they could make arrangements to watch Stephen Smith’s speech at home or elsewhere or listen to it on the radio or internet.

Instead, numerous victims will arrive home today to find that their suffering was acknowledged without many of them knowing or having little time for necessary arrangements to be made in order to view Stephen Smith’s apology. Countless current and former members of the defence force will hear the words of Stephen Smith second-hand through sound bites or perhaps in full, though still in replay, on the news and on websites.

It is surprising too that the speech by Mr Smith came before all the inquiries into abuse in the Australian Defence Force had finished. We have already had three separate investigations into different yet related matters.

Today, the Minister for Defence announced that there would be an independent taskforce to investigate the 750 “plausible” claims of abuse which were made to the DLA Piper review. The review by the global law-firm was one of the three investigations set up in response to the Skype sex abuse scandal. The minister announced that the taskforce would investigate individual claims, including attempting to identify alleged perpetrators.

Compensation of up to $50,000 for each valid claim has been offered if claimants waive the right to pursue their claims through all other legal and judicial processes. If alleged victims decide not to seek compensation, the special group led by former WA Supreme Court judge Len R0berts-Smith would decide whether or not to refer individual claims to the authorities.

So the battle is not over for victims. The process continues, but is nearing an end for some. The emotional wounds however will remain forever more.

You cannot help think that an apology, at the very least should have been delayed for weeks, maybe months.

The one certainty is that apology was needed. It was however delivered too soon.

There’s Always More Money For Defence, Some Aspirational, Some Real, Apparently

Today the Opposition Leader revealed a broader outline of defence policy for an incoming Liberal National Party Coalition Government, some of it firm commitments, some of it aspirational. That’s the thing about administrations of the right side of the political spectrum, there’s always space in the budget, no matter how tight or how far in deficit the fiscal position is. It’s all about appealing to the need to feel secure, that we’re being looked after and protected by a strong government from nasties within and external to the country. Of course a firm level of defense is always required, but conservative governments like to go a bit further to say the least.

First, in terms of looking after those who have been in the Australian Defence Force, rather than in terms of security, the Coalition, after fairly prominent debate has decided it necessary to “properly” index military pensions. This would happen in the first year of an Abbott Government and, if based on the template of the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill, would cost about $1.7 billion over 4 years.

In terms of existing spending commitments, Mr Abbott today said in his speech to the RSL National Conference that within 18 months of taking government, the Coalition would look at a timetable for the acquisition of the troubled Joint Strike Fighter. This is not something to rush into and is a project area where other nations are being increasingly cautious.

One of the first defence capability purchases that the Coalition would make would be a fleet of unmanned aircraft. Mr Abbott said that these capabilities were necessary, especially to provide surveillance over business projects 0n the North West Shelf as well as searching for those pesky asylum seeker boats.

Despite the pledge to immediately purchase drones, Mr Abbott today announced that submarine capabilities are the “probably the most urgent big procurement decision” the government needs to make. These would replace the Collins Class fleet purchased under the Howard Government. Presumably the announcement of submarine construction, to be based in South Australia, means that the Coalition would continue, at least in part, with Labor’s $40 billion pledge to build 12 new submarines

To get a broader look at the needs of the ADF, again, the Coalition would, within 18 months of taking office, proceed with another defence white paper. That means just a year to 18 months after the 2013 defence white paper is released, there will be another one. Surely that one is likely to say exactly the same thing as the one released in 2013. Defence capabilities simply don’t change and evolve that fast, though security challenges can, but this is unlikely, especially with the winding down of the Afghan conflict and future challenges, a term used very loosely, like the rise of China and India firmly in mind.

Finally, there’s an aspiration to grow the defence spend by 3% yearly, once the budget is back in order, surplus, to keep on top of perceived defence materiel and other needs of the broader defence organisation.

So where’s the money coming from? Well, supposedly room will be made in the frontline capabilities budget by making changes, a purge of backroom bureaucrats. This might make some savings, but would in no way go anywhere close to the budgetary savings necessary to accommodate such significant and ongoing funds.

So what else would have to go from the federal budget? Health? Education spending? Maybe that big paid parental leave scheme the Coalition holds onto? Well, most of the priorities are aspirational, so perhaps these departments can take some solace, at least that defence spending might not result in a cull of their staff and programs.

The freed up spending from the planned return of combat troops from Afghanistan though will provide some not insignificant room in the budget of a future government. As a consequence, some of these aspirations might become a reality.

There’s always more money for defence, of course.

The Sunday Sandwich (That’s a Wrap)

Previous weeks in Australian politics certainly could not be topped, especially against political events in recent decades, but that doesn’t mean that this non sitting week of political debate was dull and boring, it had political debate and action that has been a not unfamiliar feature of this minority government.

The week in Australian politics contained two main events and the wash-up from both provided the most debate during this parliament free period before Canberra is back with a vengeance on Tuesday. They were the release of reports, redacted, some not at all into the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and ADF culture as a whole and the announcement by Tony Abbott that an incoming Coalition government would hold an audit of all government spending save for the promises that have been made by the current Opposition.

By far the biggest debate was spawned from the details coming out of reviews into defence force culture and the so-called ADFA Skype sex scandal which has landed cadets in court.

The commandant of the ADFA, Commodore Bruce Kafer was stood aside in response to allegations made against him after the allegations of the Skype affair came to light. At the time, Defence Minister Stephen Smith made scathing comments about Kafer’s alleged conduct at the time and one of the reviews released findings this week which cleared commandant Kafer of the allegations, triggering calls for Stephen Smith to apologise, even step aside.

Mr Smith of course did neither, fully standing by his comments and this sent the media into a frenzy, quickly forming into the apologise and/or step aside and the good on ya mate, keep it up camps. Either way it appears that there are divisions between the Defence Force and the Department and its Minister, but this is n0thing new in Defence.

One of the reviews also identified nearly 800 “plausible” allegations of misconduct of varying degrees of illegality and recommended setting up an independent body to investigate the allegations, dating back to the 1950s in a thorough manner. It also recommended the use of compensation and even an official apology from the government to those aggrieved by wrongs committed against them in the Australian Defence Force.

Also this week, Tony Abbott the Leader of the Opposition gave a speech to the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry in which he outlined some of the priorities of an incoming Coalition Government. In this speech Mr Abbott also announced that, if elected, his government would introduce an audit review committee of all government business, save for the priorities of the incoming administration. This announcement came at the end of the political week but did not fail to elicit a response from various quarters in the ALP Government and even the public sector union over the weekend.

Parliament resumes next week and the Gillard Government looks set to continue focusing their efforts on trying against almost all hope to sell a message based on the economy and its relative strength compared to other nations, particularly the US and Europe as the May budget draws near. This has been something that the government has failed to do since the overthrow of Kevin Rudd, combined with the continued deficits and further taxation.

The Opposition are likely to focus on the economy as a whole too, through the prism of the carbon tax and the mining tax and the perceived effects of such policies on the economy and the people. The Craig Thomson saga is also likely to get a look-in, remaining unsolved as it is to date.

It’s not going to be the biggest of weeks ahead as far as political noise goes, but it certainly will not be among the quietest and the return of Question Time we have to thank for that.

ADFA, No Scapegoat There, This Time…

The Gillard Government, via its Defence Minister, Stephen Smith has announced, albeit in an abbreviated fashion, the findings of no less than 6 separate inquiries into Defence Force culture in the wake of the so-called “Skype sex scandal” which saw a young female Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) cadet filmed in the act of intercourse. This disgraceful act was then transmitted to other ADFA candidates via webcam on Skype. This event triggered the series of committees and inquiries which reported today.

A number of complaints came to light in the wake of the announcement of this serious of inquiries, showing that the Defence Force has much work to do to stamp out inappropriate acts and indeed the event which precipitated the flood of reviews into the Defence Force became subject of a criminal inquiry which is ongoing.

The findings of the reports, including the DLA Piper Review will see further investigation into what the Secretary of the Defence Department  Duncan Lewis called “plausible allegations” arising out of the initial examination of near to 800 complaints brought to the notice of the Review. These investigations date back to allegations of inappropriate behaviour as far back as the mid 1900’s and may well see a stream of criminal cases brought in the future.

A new body has been recommended by DLA Piper to investigate the claims along with a possibility of an apology to complainants and even compensation floated as potentially appropriate methods of rectification. Surely though, allegations of significant veracity should be referred directly to an independent investigative body like the police, not some body, no matter how “independent” set up by the Australian Defence Force. Yes, many cases may fall outside the statute of limitations and they should be dealt with in a swift and appropriate manner but where possible, all suspected criminal behaviour should be a matter for the police.

In the wake of the events which brought all this action into being, the Commodore of the ADFA was stood down pending an investigation into the propriety of his actions following the grievous incident involving the female cadet. This inquiry found that Commodore Bruce Kafer had no case to answer for his actions.

So there is to be no immediate scapegoat for the terribly damaging events that have occurred within the Defence Force and particularly the ADFA in this case. The Commodore who was in the position of highest authority will escape punishment for overseeing and not being able to identify and respond to what is a sick culture within areas of the Defence Force at the very least.

It remains to be seen whether any one individual or series thereof will be held responsible for events involving ADFA or those who have allowed the culture in the wider ADF to continue will be made to be responsible for their dereliction of duty. This certainly differs from previous practice in government where someone, usually of relatively high office is made a scapegoat, a smokescreen to distract from broader action which can be politically painful, but hey, we may have another apology or a further review and don’t we just love those…

‘Cut and Run’? No We Should Not

Overnight the Australian Defence Force (ADF) suffered three deaths and 7 wounded soldiers in an attack by a soldier in the Afghan National Army (ANA) uniform. The incident has inevitably revived the question: Should we ‘cut and run’ from our commitments in Afghanistan, or is there something else that we can do?There have now been 32 Australian soldiers killed in combat and training operations since our commitment began. We grieve them all for the loss to their families and friends and to the nation.

Should we pull all our troops out of combat, training and reconstruction roles in Afghanistan in the wake of an incident like this? I tend to agree with the position of the Gillard Government, the ADF and the Tony Abbott led Coalition when they say, no we should not contemplate a precipitate withdrawal from our responsibilities to train, reconstruct and make the war-torn nation safer.

An immediate withdrawal of all troops in an instantaneous and collective manner would result in Afghanistan becoming far more de-stabilised and result in a likely mass return of the Taliban to areas of the nation where they have largely been eradicated from.

Indeed, there is a valid argument that a longer combat, training and reconstruction role is essential for the long-term, at leas relative stability of Afghanistan. This ongoing role is essential for the future stability of Afghanistan politically and economically.

If there is one major thing that this incident tells us, it is that Afghanistan is not necessarily more or less dangerous than it has been previously. What this dreadful event, the second similar incident involving Australian forces, may tell us is that better vetting of ANA and other security force’s candidates is required.

This approach calls for more intelligence resources and time to conduct background checks, not less time with talk of deadlines of a specific withdrawal timetable. Furthermore it calls for more time and effort put into the training, combat and reconstruction roles.

The Government and other governments contemplating such circumstances will find it incredibly difficult to justify in a political environment where there have been casualties and voters are becoming war weary. The current global economic doldrums will also put immense pressure on political will. However, the point remains, that what is required is not necessarily an escalation in troop numbers or operations, but chiefly, in relation to this attack, a simple revision of vetting processes for Afghan security forces which can be worked on, in unison with the Afghan Government.

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