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.