Defence Business: The continuing JSF debate | ADM Nov 08
A Special Correspondent Canberra
This came at the end of a curious three-week period which started out with the West Australian newspaper publishing a story about a classified wargame simulation conducted in Hawaii in August, titled Pacific Vision, in which Sukhoi fighters supposedly trounced simulated JSF aircraft.
WA Liberal backbencher Dennis Jensen, a former research scientist, defence analyst and critic of JSF, said he had spoken to another person with knowledge of the final classified test results who had claimed the JSF had been clubbed like baby seals by the simulated Sukhois.
However Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, Lockheed and US thinktank the RAND Corporation denied the exercise had anything to do with pitting JSFs against Sukhois.
“RAND did not present any analysis at the war game relating to the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, nor did the game attempt detailed adjudication of air-to-air combat,” director of RAND's Project Air Force Andrew Hoehn said in a subsequent statement.
In a statement released by Lockheed, US Air Force F-35 program executive officer Major General Charles Davis said claims that Russian fighters defeated F-35s in a Hawaii-based simulated combat exercise were incorrect.
And then Mr Fitzgibbon said he had been briefed twice by defence on this exercise, rejecting claims that it involved the claimed JSF versus Sukhoi shootout.
“It just bewilders me how anyone could come to that conclusion based on the information provided to me,” he said.
On the face of it, that was the end of that - but it wasn't.
Somewhere along the way, Pacific Vision featured a Powerpoint type presentation by RAND project air force analysts John Stillion and Scott Perdue titled “Air combat, past present and future” which did feature JSF and in less than congratulatory terms.
This presentation was mentioned in the original West Australian newspaper article but surfaced again two weeks later in ABC reports as it began to circulate far and wide in media and other circles.
It appears much of the reporting conflated this presentation and Pacific Vision as one and the same.
That started the whole show over again with Mr Fitzgibbon again springing to defence of JSF as likely the best choice for the RAAF, provided it delivers promised capability at an acceptable price and schedule.
Your correspondent was intrigued to have a close look at this analysis which damned JSF with minimal praise as “double inferior” relative to modern Russian and Chinese fighter designs.
It said it had inferior acceleration, climb and turn capability and lower top speed. “Can't turn, can't climb, can't run,” it said.
What previously unseen and clearly privileged inside analysis of JSF could give rise to such conclusions, your correspondent pondered. Where could this have come from?
The answer was – Janes.
Notes on the slides relating to JSF say all calculations are based on data from Janes, that is, publicly available information.
This was for performance in visual range combat – a qualification not made at all clear in most of the reporting.
Plenty of JSF critics have said as much, with Lockheed speedily retorting that JSF will be able to hold its own against current future threats.
Well they would say that wouldn’t they?
With only two aircraft so far flying, it’s perhaps far too early to render definitive judgement in either direction.
Estimates of future performance, whether good or bad, can only be based on imperfect projections of current data.
But there is one recent cause for optimism.
Israel, which could hardly be accused of being an unintelligent buyer, is now looking to acquire JSF with an initial buy of 25, followed by 50 more.
Previously, Israel was only a security partner in the JSF development program, further down the ladder that even Australia and was presumable hedging bets until sufficiently confident JSF was a goer.
It would appear that stage has been reached.
But back to Pacific Vision. In their Powerpoint, the RAND analysts canvassed the fundamental tenets of US air superiority – secure bases, stealth, beyond visual range (BVR) combat capability and the ability to fight superior numbers and win – and the consequences if these key assumptions fail.
The context was a future conflict with the PRC over the Taiwan Strait.
JSF and F-22 superiority is founded on ability to detect threats long before they are themselves detected – then terminate them using BVR missiles, specifically AMRAAM. Yet most AMRAAM kills to date were against not very capable adversaries.
The RAND people query just how much degradation of BVR performance would need to occur before air superiority is compromised.
RAND made a few other points. One was that in a battle between quality and quantity, quantity usually triumphs.
The example for this was Germany’s revolutionary Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter, flown by perhaps the best team of combat pilots ever assembled.
But even they could not compensate for the mass attacks by allied bombers and fighters.
In a battle over the Taiwan Strait, the PRC could field very large numbers of modern combat aircraft flying from nearby bases and firing salvos of BVR missiles.
JSF came into the picture on the basis that if US BVR capability fell short, then Plan B is for a Battle of Britain type dogfight.
The RAND analysts judged JSF seriously wanting at within visual range combat.
But recent aviation history is well stacked with instances where analysts have judged new combat aircraft harshly, long before they notched up any sort of service record.
Our own F-111 is a prime example. Persistently delayed through seemingly endless technical problems, F-111 was routinely dismissed as a redundant white elephant.
At the time Australia decided on F/A-18 Hornet, some accused the Fraser government of making a grievous error as the only possible choice was the F-15 Eagle.
Similarly, the US Navy was accused of making a blunder of the same magnitude by acquiring F-14 when anyone with an iota of aviation knowledge had to realize F-15 was the only choice.