Monday, October 29, 2007

Flying blind with the Super Hornet

Four Corners tonight raised disturbing questions regarding Dr. Brendon Nelson’s decision to scrap the F111’s (no, the alleged 'wing defects' seem to be a myth) and to purchase 24 Super Hornets for $6.6 billion. The claim is that the Russian-made Sukhoi 30 fighters (bought by India, Indonesia, Malaysia and China) sell for half the price and are much better aircraft.

A case was made that we have wasted billions of dollars, ended up with second-rate fighter aircraft and possibly lost air superiority in the region. More than that, the purchase seems to have been made without careful evaluation of the capabilities of alternative aircraft and largely on the basis of the personal views and convictions of Brendon Nelson.

The Super Hornets have not been purchased by any other country outside the US and are intended to be an interim replacement for 100 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) due from the US to arrive in 2014 at a cost of $16 billion. Paying $6.6 billion for an interim aircraft seems a lot when the FIII’s seem such a fine fighter. Moreover committing at an early stage to the JSF leaves us vulnerable to US corporate opportunism and 'holdup'.

Defence staff dispute the claims of poor quality of the Super Hornets but the criticisms of procedure, waste of public money and carelessness with respect to our defence priorities need to be assessed. I’ll summarise press links as they come to hand. I welcome comment particularly from those with a defence focus - there does seem to be an problem here.

The full-transcripts and a video of this edition of Four Corners is available at its website.

9 comments:

mlesich said...

Harry, you're forgettng the issue that switching from a US designed plane to a Russian plane may create problems. For example, Australia may have to repurchase a brand new arsenal of missiles and ammunition which may be a bit more expensive.

Mike said...

mlesich, the argument (on Four Corners at least, and I imagine Harry's also) was not that Australia should necessarily be purchasing Russian planes; just that the Super Hornet may be a bit of a dud, and that we didn't shop around properly.

The Federal Government dispensed with usual procedures and didn't even bother engaging other manufacturers with other products, like the Eurofighter.

Worse, there was widespread support for retaining the F-111 with upgrades for the time until the JSF arrived, suggesting that a bridging fighter was not really necessary - though this point is contested.

Worse still, the argument deployed by those claiming that the F-111 did need replacing were flawed due to errors involved in stress-tests that were allegedly on the part of the testers, not the F-111.

robert merkel said...

Harry, I've blogged about this a number of times.

There's all sorts of indications this deal was done in a great hurry and without proper planning, not all of which were mentioned in the 4 Corners report.

Notably, we recently spent a whole bunch of dough on two new types of missile for the "classic" Hornets we bought in the 1980s. However, neither of these weapons can be carried on the Super Hornets! The weapons being fitted to the Super Hornets are apparently inferior, the air-to-ground JSOW very substantially so.

If we had have planned this earlier, we could have ensured that the new planes we were buying could actually carry the new missiles we were buying.

conrad said...

Since as far as I can tell, we have essentially no use for an airforce within the forseeable future (i.e., the lifetime of those planes), then I don't suppose it really matters whether the planes happen to be good or bad, but rather simply that we bought them from the US. Perhaps we could attack NZ with them, except then they'd just come here anyway.

hc said...

I agree Robert it sounds like a disasterously bad procedure and outcome.

Conrad, According to the Four Corners show Australia actually prepared to bomb military bases during the East Timor crisis.

You cannot say there is no forseeable threat to Australia. A threat could emerge as qa consequence of climate change or many other issues.

If you are going to spend $6.6 billion on aircraft it is reasonable to try to get value for money.

Graham Bell said...

HC:
This whole deal sounds so dodgy and so contrary to Australia's national interest as well as making no military sense that I myself do wonder why the Australian Federal Police and other investigators have not been brought in.

We do need state-of-the-art weapons and these are rarely cheap .... but this deal gives us very litte bang for far too may bucks. It looks more like corporate welfare than any rational military procurement.

How fast can we get a Royal Commission?

Sir Henry said...

Good post H.

There is always a threat scenario for Australia, even if it is not a major threat. But minor threats have a history of escalating into major threats.

That is why they have to be dealt with clinically and efficiently (as per Israeli raid on Syria's nuclear facilities recently) and for that you need air superiority over your putative opponent. This is what we pay defence planners for.

The 4 Corners program revealed hat the reason for retiring the F111 was a put-up job - a fatigue test that was no such thing: it was a wrongly calibrated test and there was no catastrophic failure of the F111 wing which precipitated the decision to retire the craft.

The main reason why the Yanks want us to drop the F111 is because it is not equipped with a secure data link for integrated tactical scenarios to mesh in with US strategic needs. The rest is bullshit, including suggestions that Brendan Nelson was somehow suborned by Boeing execs (well, maybe a high class root in Las Vegas but that's all, no money but).

The problem is that Australia is merely an extension of US force de frappe. This is to be regretted. We used to have an independent policy once, if briefly.

Of course the F111 can be fitted with such a datalink and modern computers, like the RAF Tornado F3 was. It is just that Yanks do not like the idea of us going to the UK based British Airospace Marconi packages or to the Israeli Industries. They want our money.

The F111 is ideal for our requirements and its lifespan can be extended just as the very useful B52s' was.

Let us remember that we recently bought refurbished 1952 airframes Kaman helicopters for the anti submarine role for our navy.

The F111 is actually a stealth aircraft that can fly nape-of-earth, i.e. treetop height, with its special low-power,lookdown terrain-following radar linked to the controls so the aircraft can do it at night or bad weather.

Flying so low to the target means that the aircraft is "invisible", being screened by the radar returns from ground clutter. It then climbs rapidly near the target at supersonic speeds, its swing-wings now folded for maximum speed and then dives to release the ordnance giving it an extra momentum. The attacking F111 thus appears on the enemy radar but for less than a minute and by then it is too late.

The F111s should be kept for at least a so-called "Wild Weasel" role to take out enemy radars (Google, see Wiki). F111 are ideal for this because they have an extra seat for a weapons/radar operator.

This is what happens - four F111s take off from Tindall two go lo-lo, the other two go hi-lo. The high inbound flight is to get the enemy to "light up" their anti aircraft warning radars that are linked to surface to air rocket batteries. The low flying F111s then take out those batteries.

The coast is now clear for bombing runs.

Anonymous said...

Ya can't buy a plane from the enemy, so forget the commo fighter planes. Still, Nelson's an idiot.

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