The invisible but crucial element our Air Force needs
Most opponents of the troubled Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) pay scant regard to the unique element that only so-called “fifth generation” fighter jets bring to the air power table - stealth.
The simple proposition about stealth is that if an enemy can’t see you he can’t kill you, but you can kill him.
Vocal opponents of the JSF, such as Liberal MP Dennis Jensen and Peter Goon from Air Power Australia (APA), base their arguments on the performance of the jet inside the flight envelope. They point out correctly that the “developmental” JSF performs below other “seasoned” jets in the air combat space, including the Sukhoi Flanker and even the F-15 and F-16. Few of the critics mention the Super Hornet - the government’s and the RAAF’s aircraft of choice as a capability gap filler for Australia. Presumably that jet would stand up to opposing fighters better than the “lumbering” JSF.
Much of the capability of the JSF is, for obvious reasons, classified top-secret. As well as stealth other advanced radar and weapons technologies place it far ahead of other aircraft in service or even in development.
Of course the Russians and the Chinese have stealth fighters coming down the pipeline and naturally enough their performance data is a closely guarded national secret as well.
What we do know is that so-called “fourth generation” jets such as the Flanker, F-15 and F-16 offer little or no stealth characteristics so regardless of how well they can turn or climb or accelerate they are highly visible to modern radars and missile guidance systems and would be “dead” before they even had a chance to engage a JSF that gets within its weapons release envelope without being detected.
As one insider put it “the enemy is eliminated before he even knows a JSF is in the vicinity”.
Where JSF critics can mount a strong case against the jet concerns its cost and delivery schedule.
No aircraft in history has been developed within the cost or schedule envelopes that corporate sales teams spruik to potential customers and the JSF is no different.
Ever since the Howard Government signed up to the JSF’s development (Australia has not signed up to buy large numbers yet) Lockheed Martin has been reluctant to put an exact figure on the unit through-life cost of the plane. Numerous attempts by News Limited to pin-down a figure have been batted away by the corporation’s PR battalions.
Howard’s defence minister Robert Hill told us it would be about $US40 million. That was a misleading and ludicrous figure, but Howard and Hill are long gone.
Critics say the cost is now $US130 million per plane. The reality is that we don’t know what the precise cost will be because nobody knows how many will be built. Obviously the more that are produced the lower the cost.
Either way they will be expensive but national security is a costly business. They will also be late but world leading technology is usually worth the wait.
What is clear is that the US military has too much invested in the project for it to stop now.
Critics here are demanding that Australia opts out now before it commits to big numbers of the new jet. Unfortnately none has offered a credible alternative when it comes to a fifth generation stealth capability.
Time will tell where the JSF will finish on the fighter jet league table, but as of early 2013 it is the right choice, in fact the only choice, for the nation’s air power future.
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