Australia’s $17 billion ‘dud deal’
AUSTRALIA has been locked into a "dud deal" by the US, which experts predict will put taxpayers billions of dollars out of pocket and leave the nation's security dangerously exposed.
The F-35 stealth fighter jet program is the most expensive defence project in global history.
The US project involves the manufacture and rollout of the super jets, which have been described as the "iPhone of fighter jets".
The fifth-generation aircraft were originally sold to major partner nations, including the UK, Italy, Canada and Denmark, on the strength of their "invisibility" or stealth.
The aircraft features concealed missiles and bombs and can fly at a top speed of 1900km/h.
Engineers claim the jets are able to avoid enemy detection, allowing allied pilots to get much closer to their targets before striking.
The Australian Federal Government has committed to spending $17 billion on 72 jets due to be built in the US and delivered by 2035.
Ten of the jets have been built so far and are they sitting at the Luke Air Force Base in Arizona.
The first two will be delivered to Australia in December.
But as the nation awaits its cargo, our own jets are near the end of their service life and the F-35 program faces criticism over major delays and faults.
These delays have, in turn, blown the project's global budget out more than $163 billion, leaving Australia in a precarious financial situation.
So why has this defence project been described as a "dud deal" for Australia?
The F-35 program was officially launched in 2001 but it dates back to the 1990s.
It has, so far, failed to meet many of its development targets and continues to rack up additional costs with each problem it encounters.
The fighter jets cost a staggering $140 million each and have been plagued by computer system failures, software delays and breakdowns.
University of NSW defence technology expert Jai Galliott said the jets were fast becoming outdated due to the delays.
"By the time we have fully operational fleets of these aircraft, their skills will be significantly less than what might have been the case back when we signed the deal," Dr Galliott said.
While he acknowledged the F-35's stealth was "excellent", Dr Galliott said technological sacrifices were made to achieve that unnecessary feature in the process.
"The project is over-budget so there are concerns that corners have been cut in production to ensure it doesn't go too far over budget," he said.
Over the years, problems were identified in the lack of oxygen pilots received, tyres were ripped apart on impact and computer systems failed repeatedly.
The most recent failure involved a US F-35 stealth fighter crashing during a training exercise outside Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina last month.
The pilot was safely ejected from the aircraft but all F-35 jets, including Australia's small fleet, were grounded while an investigation was carried out, pushing out the deadline and cost even further.
The investigation concluded the crash was due to a faulty fuel tube, sparking further inspections.
An Australian Defence Department spokeswoman told news.com.au that "all of Australia's F-35A aircraft have now been inspected".
"Two were found to be fitted with suspect hydraulic fuel tubes which will be replaced," the spokeswoman said.
"All non-affected Australian aircraft have been cleared to fly."
The spokeswoman confirmed the safety inspections had no impact on the delivery of the first two jets to Australia on December 10.
Dr Galliott said that, while the US had been quick to cover up technical problems and tout the F-35's capabilities in combat, the weapons industry was rapidly moving away from pilot-operated battle planes.
"It will take such a long time to sort out all the problems and train people up that we could have built or purchased an unmanned combat aerial vehicle instead," Dr Galliott said.
To put the sheer size of the F-35 fighter project into perspective, the program's budget blowout alone is the equivalent of three National Broadband Networks.
It is 77 times more expensive than the new Royal Adelaide Hospital, which opened last month.
It is the same as about 30 Cross River Rail projects.
A new runway, currently being constructed at the Brisbane Airport, would have to be built more than 125 times to even get close to the cost of the F-35 fighter program.
And remember, that is just the additional spend on top of the project's budget.
Considering each F-35 jet costs more than $140 million, this is one of the most expensive global weapons collaborations Australia has ever committed to.
So, why did we sign on that dotted line, when major infrastructure projects such as hospitals, trains and aeroplanes cost so little to build in comparison?
Dr Galliott said we did it to keep our mates in the US happy.
"This deal was a dud from the start," he said.
"I mean, how much should you have to pay to have your best buddy come and protect you?"
The Australian Defence Force declined to answer questions from news.com.au about the cost of the project and the impact it would have on the Australian taxpayer.
Dr Galliott said Australia's commitment to the F-35 jet program was a strategic one, designed to appease our US allies.
"The Defence Force and the government were always in a tricky position with this deal, our hands were always tied," he said.
As a small developed nation, Australia can't afford to defend itself against an attack and, as such, needs to rely on its allies.
The largest and oldest ally we have is the US.
"In that sense, perhaps this was a wise decision, but every other part of me says this was a dud deal from the start," Dr Galliott said.
Recently, the US has been critical of Australia's economic ties with China, and this deal was a way for the government to strengthen relations.
"There was too much to lose between Australia and the US; it wouldn't have looked good for us to say no," he said.
And so, rather than put our American allies off-side, Australia sacrificed better, stronger, newer jets in favour of a geopolitical handshake.
"It was all strategic. This deal ensured we would get a strategic relationship and a half decent aeroplane," he said.
"But when you think about it, it's not the best bang for your buck."