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Don't buy in haste

By Peter Coates - posted Friday, 23 May 2008


The issue of Australia's most expensive weapons purchase has been framed by our politicians and the RAAF around highly technical, arcane aircraft specifications. They appear to be telling us “stand aside, only engineers and senior pilots can understand this matter”. Then we are supposed to entrust our money to them and switch off. However personal and political ambitions in Washington and profit making in Texas count heavily towards which jet Australia is allowed to buy.

The career of Gordon R. England is a classic example of a company man being appointed to a top position in the Pentagon for the benefit of a sitting President. As President of General Dynamics, now Lockheed (Fort Worth, Texas) from 1993 to 1995, England was the supreme boss of the factory that is developing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In 2003 England became Secretary of the US Navy (a major Lockheed customer) and in 2006 he replaced the notorious Paul Wolfowitz as US Deputy Defence Secretary overseeing weapons issues including the F-35's development. He also has responsibility for sales to foreign buyers like Australia. Naturally England is an appointee of George W. Bush, also from Texas.

Following the sale of the (perhaps interim) Super Hornet, the only two fighters Australia has wanted to buy are the world’s only two modern stealth fighters - the Lockheed F-22 and failing that the Lockheed F-35.

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As both are made by Lockheed using exclusive technology this gives Lockheed and its former executive Gordon R. England extraordinary market and political power. Lockheed Martin is, of course, the world's largest and most influential defence contractor with about 140,000 employees.

England's Lockheed and political career mean that he is in a central position to influence which fighter Australia buys and when. Not surprisingly it was England who sent Australia the infamous letter last year reaffirming that post 9-11 America did not trust its closest allies with its most effective warplane (the F-22). Despite the Australian Government's public statements it appears to be meekly accepting Mr England’s pronouncement.

Other Pentagon heavies with a Lockheed background have key jobs in Washington:

  • John J. Young Jr the Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics got his Washington job in 2001 after working in the aerospace industry including at Gordon R. England’s Fort Worth factory;
  • Michael W. Wynne spent three years with Lockheed and years with General Dynamics Aircraft, now part of Lockheed. In 2001 he moved into the acquisitions area of the Defence Department, giving him influence over buying Lockheed products. He then became Secretary of the Air Force, the principal buyer of the Lockheed F-35;
  • Donald C. Winter is Secretary of the US Navy and a former top executive of Northrop Grumman a company working closely with Lockheed as a major sub-contractor on the F-35 project. The US Navy is likely to be the second largest buyer of F-35; and
  • Preston M. Geren, III, born in Fort Worth, is Secretary of the US Army and a former Congressman whose electorate covered Fort Worth. He will have many reasons to back continued acquisition of the F-35 for US Army air support. The Lockheed F-35 factory is a huge employer in his home town, with about 5,000 highly paid staff.

All these men can be seen as political appointments and will probably leave the Pentagon in January 2009 when Bush leaves office. They want to clinch the F-35 contract with Australia and other customers beforehand because their future careers can only benefit. Hence Australia is being forced into deciding on the F-35 extraordinarily quickly.

These neat US political and commercial realities may all be news to our own Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon who may have made the incorrect assumption that the F-35 must be bought now or next year. It probably won't be available to Australia until 2018. He may realise too late that there is no rush.

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By 2014 the current security concerns that Congress has in exporting the F-22 are likely to be less valid. The F-22’s technology will be older and it may well be made available for export after Congress amends US law. That is, if we wait six years to make a considered judgment in 2014 we may get the superior F-22 in 2017 rather than the inferior F-35 in 2018.

Lockheed is pressuring Fitzgibbon to buy now with premature press releases about jobs for Australian industry including money for Victoria. This may be encouraging more than 20 Australia aerospace firms, who will subcontract for Lockheed, to be its de facto lobbyists. The latest argument that Australia should buy the F-35 now while exchange rates are good, sounds like a try on.

If Australia is rushed into buying the F-35 we may be stuck with it before its suspected performance deficiencies in avoiding radar detection are fully assessed. An advanced Russian radar is under development that may be able to see the "invisible" F-35 even before the F-35 is likely to enter Australian service in 2018. This radar may be fitted to Su 27+ Flankers that have been purchased by potential opponents, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and China.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Masterís Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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