Aussies’ modest proposal: Sell us F-22s, mate

Skeptics in Canberra say Australia should ditch the F-35 and go big. Their odds are not good.

For F-35 proponents, every sunrise brings new reasons for unease about the future of the program. It regularly gets bad headlines in the U.S. The Brits now say they’ll wait until 2015 before committing to buy any more jets. And as we’ve talked about before, there are rumblings Down Under that suggest the Australians may be losing their patience.

But proponents in the U.S. and Australia can take heart about one thing — these are the guys they’re up against:

Some of the most vehement critics of Australia’s involvement in the Joint Strike Fighter program had their day in the sun on Tuesday afternoon when they testified before a high level parliamentary defence committee. Representatives of anti-JSF think tank Air Power Australia and RepSim Pty Ltd were given an hour to make their case before the defence subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

By the time the group was 30 minutes into its presentation at least five of the committee members had left the room.

Remaining committee members, including Opposition defence spokesman Senator David Johnston, were told the JSF program was a failure, the planes only had limited stealth capability and that they were compromised by the use of a core design to produce three different variants; a conventional land based plane, a short take off and landing variant that will replace the US Marine Corps’ Harrier jets and a carrier version.

Air Power Australia wants the Australian Government to abandon the JSF and, instead, exert pressure on the US Government to scrap the program in favour of having Lockheed Martin re-open its F-22 Raptor production line and make that plane, arguably the world’s best air superiority fighter, available to the international partners.

Yeah, that’s gonna happen. You can’t blame them for taking what they believe is the best position for their government — and, after all, they’re standing upside down on the bottom of the planet, so the blood is probably rushing to their heads. But if Lockheed’s own Amur’kun advocates in Congress couldn’t save the F-22, the chances are even more remote that Canberra can do it.

All other things being equal, an export version of the F-22 could be a great idea for the U.S. On the What’s-Good-for-Lockheed-is-Good-for-America front, the company resumes cranking out airplanes down in Marietta. The Australian and Japanese air forces start flying the world’s greatest super-jet from their own fields in the Western Pacific. Lockheed comes back to the Air Force and says, hey, we’re so good at building these things in volume now, we’ll sell you a whole batch for fifty bucks apiece. The waves upon waves of F-22s in the skies block out the sun.

But this schoolboy fantasy will never be. As defense commentator Loren Thompson wrote this week, the U.S. has a spotty track record in dealing with potential export customers for military airplanes. He set up his post as an explanation of why India might have chosen France’s Dassault Rafale over the F-35:

New Delhi is a complicated place, and there were probably multiple reasons for the decision. But here’s one factor that hasn’t been reported. India made three different requests for information to the U.S. government over the last several years about sea-based versions of the F-35, and somehow nobody in Washington ever managed to answer any of them. Not surprisingly, the Indians eventually went away, but the lack of a U.S. response can’t have made a good impression.

This situation is reminiscent of the way Japan, another first-tier Asian power, was treated when it made repeated inquiries concerning possible purchase of the twin-engine F-22 fighter. Military planners in Tokyo felt the F-22 was uniquely suited to Japan’s geostrategic circumstances, and therefore were seriously contemplating its purchase. Their inquiries weren’t just ignored in Washington, but bluntly rebuffed. Tokyo eventually decided to buy the single-engine F-35 instead, which is just as stealthy but not as agile in the most demanding engagements (it’s still far superior to any foreign fighter).

So it seems the Aussies should not feel particularly slighted about either their membership in Club F-35 or a few peoples’ F-22 aspirations. Dealing with the U.S. apparently is a headache for everyone.