Carlo Kopp: F-35 Extended Coverage
For the past few weeks, I have been providing coverage of the lingering Australian F-35 debate via publications in The Diplomat, East Asia Forum, The Asia-Pacific Reporting Blog, Pnyx, and Foreword Report. In preparing this series of articles, I had the opportunity to interview Carlo Kopp, Research fellow at Monash Univerity and Co-Founder of Air Power Australia. Unfortunately, not all of that interview has yet to be used in my reporting. With seven articles in the series now live, I therefore wanted to put his views out there while still timely and relevant. They also provide a different perspective to complement recent feature-length interviews with Alan Stephens and Andrew Davies. Ultimately, Kopp’s comments will be re-captured in two new articles scheduled to post later this month.
Does Australia need the F-35 to achieve its national security objectives? How does the current Australian Administration’s perception of the rise of China influence that decision?
The F-35 is not a viable design and could never meet Australia’s national security needs. Claims otherwise have been repeatedly shown to be incorrect, and mostly based upon naive, incorrect, or absent assessments of the capabilities of contemporary Russian and Chinese built weapon systems deployed in Asia. The Canberra Department of Defence (DoD) has no organic capabilities of substance in technical intelligence collection and analysis, and have since 2002 relied primarily on briefings provided by foreign contractors supplying replacement equipment. Public statements by the Canberra DoD suggest that the strategic risks arising from the rise of China are not well understood within the organisation. The long standing commitment to the F-35, and the decision to arbitrary procure the F/A-18F to replace the F-111 are empirical proof of this.
From your perspective, why did the F-35 win out against the competition to begin with?
There was no competitive assessment performed for Australia’s replacement combat aircraft. The AIR6000 program was intended to perform this function, but was pre-empted in 2002 by anad hocdecision to procure the F-35. This was made by a small number of senior defence officials, who convinced the incumbent Defence Minister, Robert Hill, that the F-35 was superior to all alternatives, despite ample public evidence to the contrary. A formal AIR6000 study would have forced a formal technical and operational assessment of alternatives, which if performed robustly, would have been unlikely to yield the F-35 as an outcome since the aircraft is by design far too specialised for roles which have historically been a low priority in Australian combat aircraft procurements.
How has Minister for Defence Stephen Smith’s national security strategic vision, goals, and objectives affected the F-35 programme?
There is no empirical evidence that Stephen Smith has any strategic vision other than aposteriorjustification of Canberra DoD force structure planning choices made during the incumbency of John Howard. While Smith has initiated a large number of reviews, these have generally been delegated to the Canberra DoD and the outcomes from those reviews which have concluded are essentially public relations repackaging of the status quo in policy and practice. This repeats the pattern observed during the incumbency of Joel Fitzgibbon.
If the the Australian Department of Defence reduces its commitment to the F-35, where does Australia likely shift the budget savings?
Assessments of likelihood presuppose a systematic pattern of choices to provide calibration. Thead hocand arbitrary nature of the F-35, F-111 and F/A-18F decisions suggest that when the F-35 program inevitably collapses due to endemic engineering and program management problems, and its inability to compete against modern air defence threats, the Canberra DoD is most likely to make another arbitrary choice for fighter replacement. Given that all three cited previous decisions were made without any credible and rigorous analytical or technical assessments of combat viability in the region, what choices to replace the F-35 are made will also likely be determined by internal politics within the Canberra DoD, unless there is external political intervention.
Does Australia perceive a serious air threat against its national interests emanating from ASEAN member states?
Until the late 1990s the Canberra DoD planned force structure primarily around the capability to decisively deter or defeat Indonesian capabilities. Post 2001 with the change of regime in Indonesia, the Canberra DoD has primarily focused upon equipping the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to perform expeditionary COIN or battlefield interdiction operations, whilst publicly espousing the contrary argument that air superiority and strategic strike remain a high priority. The arbitrary choice of the F-35, which is a specialised battlefield interdictor lacking the performance, stealth and sensor suite for air superiority, preempted the formal AIR6000 analysis of alternatives, and the intended capability and performance analyses. There is no evidence that any regional capability developments have impacted the commitment of the Canberra DoD to the F-35.
Some analysts believe that Australia is recognizing the need to diversify its air platforms and that the F-35 is eating into other critical military and intelligence programs. Do you agree this is a factor?
This is at best speculation. Australia has lacked a coherent rationale for RAAF planning since 2002, as the choice of the F-35 was forcefully imposed, and all research and analytical effort on other air power capabilities has been almost completely abandoned by taxpayer funded organisations since then. Diversification of air platforms is a moot argument when the preferred single type platform lacks any credible capability to perform the key operational roles central to the RAAF’s purpose since 1941.
There are persistent rumors that Boeing may benefit from the reduced interest in the F-35 in the form of more F/A-18Fs. Why would/would not the F/A 18F be a good fit and are there better alternatives?
The F/A-18F has similar performance and capability deficiencies to the F-35, and is equally incapable of credibly performing against modern regional threats. This has not deterred F/A-18F advocates from promoting the aircraft as a substitute for the F-35. In a regional environment where the dominant non-US combat aircraft will be the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA and Chengdu J-20 series, the only aircraft type which can credibly compete is the US built F-22A Raptor. Other aircraft would suffer prohibitive combat losses against either of these aircraft types, and therefore do not present as credible investments in capability.
Is part of the interest in Boeing related to domestic politics given that Boeing has major commercial interest in Australia, including 1,500 jobs at fully off-shored Boeing Australia?
Very unlikely - if previous patterns of thought prevail in the Canberra DoD. Australia’s sole industrial capability for airborne weapons system integration and development, operated by Boeing, was arbitrarily closed down with the shutdown of the F-111, and the highly skilled engineering personnel who performed this work mostly encouraged to find employment elsewhere. Some of Australia’s most skilled engineers in this area no longer work in the defence industry. The Canberra DoD has a proven track record of not seeing any value in industrial base engineering and R&D capabilities.
Other thoughts or opinions on the F-35 not captured above?
The F-35 lacks the aerodynamic performance to be employed effectively as an air defence interceptor, while its stealth performance in provably insufficient for defensive/offensive counter-air and ASuW strike operations against contemporary regional capabilities. In the most fundamental sense the argument is moot, as the F-35 is incapable of making any useful contribution to the defence of Australia’s sea-air gap.