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Why is Turnbull Wasting Billions on Dubious Defence Technology?

Kim Brebach - Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Why is Turnbull Wasting Billions on Defence | Technoledge

Why commit billions to distant defence projects of enormous uncertainty - when Australia needs industries to provide jobs and growth right now? We take a closer look at the Turnbull government's 'innovation policy' and see pigs that it expects to fly. 

Innovation or new industries?

Some of our new submarines will be operational sometime in the 2030s, 20 years from today if we’re lucky. Our F-35 Joint Strike Fighters are due to start deliveries in 2018, yet the plane’s many show-stopping problems suggests it’ll take many more years before the plane battle-ready.

Much closer to our real needs is the innovation PM Turnbull promised us. In fact, we need more than innovation: we need whole new industries to replace the entire car industry that’s closing down next year. 200,000 jobs will disappear in 2017, and what’s our PM’s response? To announce onshore shipbuilding projects for the navy, claiming they ‘can form a powerful base to develop Australia's innovation and skills levels, since they’re at the cutting edge of technology and ideas.’

Jobs and Growth – in Spain

Why did the Turnbull government create 3,000 jobs in Spain, where two supply ships worth $2 billion will be now be built? Turnbull’s $40 billion naval ship building program in South and Western Australia will create just 2500 jobs. We’re 500 jobs short but there’s more: The Turnbull government is committed to spending about $200 billion dollars on submarines and jetfighters, military hardware and software that has either not yet been built or not yet been designed. That’ll buy about 2800 jobs. You don’t have to crunch the numbers to see the pitiful ROI here.

Meanwhile all kinds of promising new technologies, from Photovoltaic cells to the anti-hacking kernel and Quantum Computing, have to rely entirely on private investors who have been reluctant to invest in hi-tech projects without some direction from the various Australian governments who’ve cannibalised the funding of Australian Science and the CSIRO.

Lead author Menno Veldhorst (left) and project leader Andrew Dzurak (right) in the UNSW laboratory where the experiments were performed. (Photo Credit: Paul Henderson-Kelly/UNSW).

Long term projects of Enormous Uncertainty

The new submarines are supposed to be essential for our defence yet the 20-year wait leaves us utterly defenceless, because our ‘fleet’ of Collins Class subs has been a colossal failure and will be almost impossible to keep going for another 2 decades. Only 2 of the 6 submarines are seaworthy at any time since they need twice as much maintenance as planned. And there’ve been ‘a number of periods when the RAN had just 1 fully operational submarine available – or less.’ More here.

Why do we need submarines when we’ve managed to live without them (in effect) for the last 3 decades?Mark Beeson, Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia, makes a convincing case that we don’t. And Terry Barnes argues in THE DRUM that the real reason for the $150 billion submarine program ($50 for building the subs, $100 billion for maintaining them) is to win more South Australian seats in the upcoming election.

If that’s a reason, the cost is breathtaking: If you divide the estimated 2,800 jobs created by the submarine program into $150 billion, each job will cost Australia $52 million. Even over a generous 36 years, that’s $1.5 million dollars a year for each job created. We would’ve been many times better off keeping the car industry going, which generates 200,000 jobs for a modest sum in government subsidies: just $550 million a year.

Car building skills are easily transferrable, while those learnt in building submarines are not. We’re about to throw an entire hi-tech industry overboard, just as it has shown it can produce quality cars that are competitive on the world market as the picture of the Pontiac / Holden Commodore below shows. Of course it needs financial assistance because of the low volumes made, but the Europeans and Americans also give assistance to many of their industries. It’s a fact of life.

Pic below: Holden Commodore rebadged as a GM Pontiac for sale in the US. (Photo: Wheels Magazine)

The F-35 JSF – No Jobs & Snow Jobs

In some ways, the F-35 is an even worse proposition than the new submarines. Apart from a few companies down under making a few metal bits for these jets, the program hasn’t produced any jobs. All the serious work is done in the USA. In fact we’re not even taking part in the testing exercises, according to Sarah Dingle at RN’s background briefing. She adds that our test agencies don’t even get to read the US test reports.

The first thing Canada’s new PM Justin Trudeau did when he took office, just after Turnbull became our new PM, was to cancel Canada’s order for 65 F-35s. Trudeau says Canada should focus more on homeland defence than power projection with its new fighter buy, and added that he'd withdraw Canada from military operations against Islamic State. Trudeau’s move followed David Cameron’s decision to reduce Britain’s order from 138 F-35s to just 48 of the jump-jet variety.

We have a lot in common with Canada: our language, close ties with the USA, a large and sparsely occupied landmass, a constitutional monarchy and more. Trudeau’s decision made it easy for Turnbull to announce a review of our air defence requirements and commitments. He would’ve had a lot of support because the F-35 has become so expensive that even the USA will have to reduce the number of planes it can afford to buy.

Too Big to Fail

‘The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive, and possibly the most error ridden, project in the history of the United States military,’ reports CNBC. But the US Department of Defence has sunk so much money into the F-35 — which is expected to cost $1.5 trillion over the 55-year life of the program — that the Pentagon deemed it ‘too big to fail’ in 2010. Here’s the short story from Business Insider:

  • The F-35 is based on outdated ideas of air warfare
  • The F-35’s performance has not met initial requirements: its payload is low, its range is short, and espionage efforts by the People’s Republic of China may have compromised the aircraft long in advance of its introduction (see below).
  • To add insult to injury, the F-35 may have ‘substantially less performance’ than some existing aircraft. Analysts say ‘it might well be the first modern fighter to have substantially less performance than its predecessors.’
  • Advances in Russian and Chinese radar defences cast doubt over the effectiveness of the F-35’s stealth technology – remember: this is a stealth fighter.
  • The F-35s are being bought ‘off the plan’ before they have been proven in any scenario. They have not been tested outside a computer simulation.

Col Michael Pietrucha, who is quoted in the Business Insider article, suggests that the F-35 program should be put on hold and the US Air Force should instead look at a mix of fighters for the future.

‘An Epic Waste’

It would take many pages to even cover the major issues that have turned the F-35 JSF into such a disaster, so I’ll let some of the headlines tell the story and provide links to some of the details.

How to Build a $400 Billion F-35 That Doesn’t Fly

Things came to a head in 2010 when Defence Secretary Robert Gates fired Maj. Gen. David Heinz and put a new officer in charge of the program.

Flawed F-35 Too Big to Kill as Lockheed Hooks 45 States

Military admits F-35 fighter doesn't work but says it's too late stop $400B program,

Pentagon’s ‘Too Big to Fail’ F-35 Gets Another $10.6 Billion

How DOD’s $1.5 Trillion F-35 Broke the Air Force

Former ADF lead engineer slams Join Strike Fighter acquisition

The Sting in the Tail

'The most software driven aircraft ever built hasn't yet been tested against cyber security and the modern cyber warfare threats,' the former head of test and evaluation for the ADF Dr Keith Joiner told the ABC. This is a serious issue that has had little coverage. Here’s the problem: the F-35 software has 8 million lines of code on-board, and twice as many again on the off-board systems (the data ‘bricks’ that contain Mission Data Files (MDFs) for terrains in various parts of the world).

The F-35 contains 10 times as much software as any other jetfighter ever built, making it a big target for cyber espionage. You may think that’s far-fetched, but a Chinese businessman recently pled guilty in a US court to carrying out cyber thefts of U.S. military secrets that included the F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters. In 2013, the leaks by Edward Snowdon revealed that China had stolen many design details of the F-35. Last year, defence media reported that ‘China’s Copycat Jet Raises Questions About F-35.’

However, traditional wars between major nations are looking less likely as we see increasing conflicts with terrorists groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda and others. With so much software on board, the F-35 will be a huge target for terrorist hackers.

The Bottom Line

It looks like the innermost secrets of the F-35, if it ever gets off the ground in earnest, will be known to the Chinese and the Russians and who knows who else. That would make an even more epic waste. Our new submarines face similar problems in the long term since ‘Key Pentagon adviser and submarine expert Bryan Clark told Lateline last year that new technology could make submarines easier to find and therefore ineffective,’ according to the ABC News.

Another development is that, 20 years from now, underwater drones or unmanned subs guided by AI will have made conventional submarines obsolete. In recent years, it has proved difficult for western navies to find the volunteers needed to man submarines, so this advance will be welcome.

A final point is that building the submarines down under instead of France is estimated to increase by 30%, according to the Australian. That’s $15 billion the government could spend on promoting innovation, supporting some of the great new technologies being developed in Australia and ensuring that they don’t get snapped up by overseas investors.

If this story is making you feel depressed, then spare a thought for US Air Force General James Martin Jr. who passed out while briefing the press on the future of the F-35 program.



Kim Brebach
Content Chief

I've always loved people and words. As long as I can remember I've been a story-teller and the team here says I'm good at it. That's probably why I head up the Content Creation team: I create the arc of the story and others add their magic.


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