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JSF – a win for strategic thinking

written by Williams Foundation | November 25, 2009

The Williams Foundation unequivocally endorses the government’s decision to place a firm order for 14 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. This represents strategic thinking of the first order, for which the Rudd government, and indeed its coalition predecessors (who took the decision to join the nine-nation JSF program in 2002), deserve credit. No single defence force-structuring choice in the next two decades is likely to contribute more to Australia’s national security.

Australia’s geostrategic circumstances are unique, and require a unique force-structuring solution. Because we inhabit an island continent, our military strategy logically should focus first, on controlling events in the approaches to our north and northwest; and second, on protecting ourselves, our friends, and our allies throughout that region. The most recent Defence White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, explicitly recognised those strategic imperatives.

The Australian Defence Force must be paramount in three crucial roles if it is successfully to prosecute that strategy:

  • Information/Surveillance/Reconnaissance (ISR),
  • Control of the Air, and
  • Strategic Strike

Numerous components from each of the three services contribute to those roles, but none is, or will be for many years, more important than the F-35.

When the F-35 becomes operational with the RAAF around 2018 it will be the best ISR and air-to-ground strike/fighter in the world, bar none; and it will be considerably superior in air-to-air combat to every other fighter in the world except the F-22, which on current indications will be operated only by our American allies.

By ordering 14 aircraft the government has set its course – there will be no turning back. The RAAF can now proceed confidently with training crews, building infrastructure, and developing concepts of operations.

The F-35 will be the centrepiece of a networked ADF, and as its exceptional capabilities become better understood, it is likely to be valued as much by the Navy and Army as by the Air Force.


In the opinion of the Williams Foundation, the Rudd Government’s decision to order the F-35 represents a win for strategic thinking and, therefore, for national security.

The Williams Foundation is an independent research organisation whose purpose is to promote the development and effective implementation of national security and defence policies specific to Australia’s unique geopolitical environment and values.


  • john gates


    We in Australia have so many times gone for the whizz bang, but in numbers that seldom give us a credible, formidable force. We see it with the Air Warfare Desroyers, 4 C-17s, and only 6 KC-30s. Would not it be better in this circumstance to order 100 of the newest F-15s? This would not give us a minnow wow factor, but the most credible air force in our region. Senior Staff Officers and of course the bureacrats, seem to love the costliest of equipment purchases. There will be no guarantee that the economic circumstances will see us with the numbers that are spoken of. When government are forced to kill programmes, the current administration will be far more ruthless than previous governments.

  • Geoffrey McKell


    This decision is a relief…I think.

    Given the uncontestable dominance in the region of the Su-27/30 family this would seem the right decision.

    Given out vast ocean reaches I have always shook my head as to why we would buy a frontline fighter [F/A-18A] having a forward reach/ unrefueled radius of a mere 400nm. Perhaps because there was little choice available or at the time the Su 27 was not seen as a stable let alone mature nor threatening design – how things change.

    That we have recently committed to spending a sizable chunk of Defence budget on the F/A-18E/F and maybe the G sounds as though the manufacturers and even governments have been outwitted by the success of the latest Su series. Looks like the Feds hit the panic button for this “stopgap” F/A-18E/F series clearly exposing how we have been left with little choice to override the opposition.

    The argument Boeing put forward for the E/F purchase is completely linked with the necessity to purchase the G [Growler] with its technology transfer from the F-22, apparently well to our advantage, yet we haven’t committed to it – and probably won’t now we are committed to the F-35 which ultimately leaves the F/A-18E/F units out on a limb in thin airspace, hence the term “stopgap”.

    The Feds have hit a blank spot at our financial burden – without the G or tanker support required for forward operations – by that I mean anywhere 400nm NW of Williamstown or once regrouped, at Tindal – the E/Fs can do little on their own. Like I said – dead money. The head spins with the figures being spent on this type only to be discarded in the relative near future when the “stopgap” equipment will be supplanted in the early 2020s by the F-35.

    Since the shootout days for the USAF nextgen fighter – F-16/F-18 there have been precious few designs coming out of the US and maybe there is valid debate about the mergers syndrome that collapsed much of the milaviation creative thinking sector in the 90’s.

    As we all know, it’s all about the technology put to use that dominates, so what’s to stop the opposition from heightening there capabilities to override the F-35’s superiority in the near future? One good example is the development of the Su-27/30 series during the time the Boeing F/A series was being developed. Not forgetting of course the AESA radar for the PAK FA , surpassing the F-22 Raptor’s APG-77 capabilities. We need to be right on top of all this.

    The powers to be had better be sure we are getting all Australia needs to ensure we can handle ourselves for decades to come.

  • David Geaves


    Good idea John, how on earth an F-35 with only 2 AAMs and limited performance capability can provide ‘control of the air’ is beyond me.

    I can only surmise that LM or the US has offered some mighty big incentives for Australia and other countries to buy this aircraft.

    For nations who will adopt the F-35 as their sole combat aircraft, (Holland and Norway, maybe Denmark) I feel they are taking a huge risk with their sovreignty.

  • David Bentley


    Putting the F-35 debate into context, it is interesting how much criticism there was of the F-111 purchase at the time. The F-35 also shares some similarity in the reach for a new technical capability but the reality is that because of this technical ambition, the F-111 let Australia punch way above our weight for decades. It was in a sense the first stealth aircraft albeit by speed and low level capability rather than LO characteristics. Personally, I believe it was retired too soon, as it is still a formidable performer and had reached a peak of reliability for its technological age under the Boeing support program however that aside, we sometimes give too much credit to a platform without realising it is a part of a system.

    The SU series of fighters are impressive in isolation but if you cannot maintain, operate and deploy them as a part of an effective system (and none of our neighbours have that capability as yet) they are not of much use other than at air shows. As it stands, there are few places in our region the F-111 cannot still go with relative impunity. Weather reduces or defeats IR missile systems, long range high speed cruise and standoff missiles along with high ingress-egress speeds means flexibility of entry points. I might have an SA-300 but where is it? What is it’s range? Can a lobe stepping ESM approach followed by a GPS guided launch still defeat me? Can the attacker egress at a speed greater than the interceptor that might be launched to find him or at a location but virtue of range flexibility outside of my engagement capability? The answer to the above in our regional context remains yes under most circumstances.

    There are so many variables that it is not a simple situation. If I can fly a four ship F-35 with one illuminator (using a LPI) Radar and three shooters, your SU series fighter will be removed the inventory faster than a plasma TV at a Christmas sale.

    The real force multiplication effect of LO technology is that you can’t shoot what you can’t see and this is what Australia needs now. Just the idea that you have missile armed LO Fighter/Strike aircraft backed by AWACS and systems like Jindalee means once again, we can punch above our weight, so that maybe we won’t have to…

  • Trevor Hesse


    So many questions so few clear answers.
    Will the as yet non operational systems really work as advertised?
    Will just two BVR missiles in stealth configuration be enough?
    Will just five KC-30s enable us to operate sufficient aircraft out to the ranges potentially needed in the strike role?
    Will the F-35 assuming it will be on service entry still be a credible combat platform thirty years on?
    Or will it always just be an overweight underpowered sitting duck especially if our potential adversaries over time equip themselves with agile adequately powered platforms with combat systems equal to or better than ours?
    So many qeustions the answers will indeed be interesting, lets just hope that we and the powerful ally have got it right.

  • Bruno Watt


    Trevor: Not to mention the ever increasing wealth and industrial capabilities of some of our neighbours. Look at what India is doing to improve its Su-30s, they are far superior to Russian or Chinese variants. I’m not saying anyone is a real and current threat but well….resources.

  • David Bentley


    The challenge here is what we can do with what we have. The F-35 is not ideal. The F-22 would be but they ain’t sellin’. As long as there is not a 5th gen LO platform opposing us, the idea that we can repulse an aggressive air move is not unlike ( to invoke a tactical cliche) the advantage that the RAF had during the Battle of Britain (Chain Home) but in reverse. In a purely defensive engagement over the land sea gap early detection (OTHR) and LO aircraft will defeat a conventional adversary. Period. No matter how advanced your avionics, no matter how manoevrable your aircraft, if you get shot in the face while you are ingressing, it is all over. If you can be seen you can be engaged. It then becomes a situation of political will vs cost. You only have to decimate an incoming raid convincingly to seriously dent an opponent’s will.

    While this is largely theoretical and is unlikely every to come to pass (we hope) there is no substitute for LO.

    I wish we would have bought the F-35C to at least reduce wing loading and give us some more 1v1 manoevre capability but at the end of the day, as we discovered 60 years ago against another very manoevrable, seemingly invincible platform (A6M Zero), shoot and scoot is still the best option.

    The other thing to consider is the other guy’s key assets such as AWACS and tankers are VERY exposed to ambush tactics by LO aircraft.

    For a small country with a limited defence force, best is the only real option as a deterrent.

  • Ron


    Who gives a crap what the Williams’ Foundation thinks – It’s just a Lockheed Martin funded lobby group! Of course they’re going to praise this decision, & this “independent stategic thinktank” (yeah right!) has been lobbying the Government hard for a few years now. Talk about stealth, talk about Low Observability – that’s exactly what LM has been doing using this dressed up bunch of (otherwise respectable) Australian top brass to do all the selling for them, & to be there to quickly quash even the slightest thought of buying anything else – like say 120 Super Hornets for HALF the cost of 100 F-35s.

    Speaking of Hornets – does anyone remember why the F-15 was dropped from the shortlist back in the 70’s/80’s – it wasn’t about the money – it was the wisdom that an over-projection of force (coupled with the F-111) would lead to our neighbours doing the same. Thirty years later, we’ve had the chance to show restrainful respect to our neighbours once again again, but instead chosen a platform that says “catch me if you can!” And they will. Why create enemies just to justify spending?

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