In the 1950s US Government officials and sober strategic analysts argued that the United States suffered from a “bomber gap” whereby the Soviet Union supposedly possessed a superior force of strategic bombers.
In Australia we are told today that we face a similar “bomber gap” in that we may soon lose our main “strategic strike deterrent”, the F-111, without a suitable replacement until the arrival of the Joint Strike Fighter. The bomber gap controversy is worth reflecting upon because it places focus on the role of strategic deterrence in Australian national security policy.
The first bomber gap was known to be a fraud. In fact at the time we now know that then Strategic Air Command chief, General Curtis LeMay, even sought to use intelligence flights over the Soviet Union, in order to provoke a preventive nuclear war in a sort of mad Dr Strangelove scenario, without the knowledge of his superiors in Washington. He could do this because he knew that the bomber gap was real: it was the Soviets that had a bomber gap. You are reading this because Moscow did not take the bait. They had a bomber gap after all.
Could our bomber gap be equally mythical?
The F-111 has had a controversial history in Australia right from the moment that the Menzies Government procured the aircraft from Washington. The deal was conveniently hatched up during the run up to the 1963 election and the concerns about Sukarno’s policy of “Konfrontasi” were more a cover than anything else.
The F-111 was presented as a bomber that was able to strike targets in Indonesia. But really, Menzies sought to use “national security” in order to reverse the results of the knife-edge 1961 “credit squeeze” election. The more things change the more things stay the same it seems.
The F-111 is due for retirement. The Government, as part of its huge shopping cart purchase of high technology offensive weaponry, would like to replace it with the Joint Strike Fighter. It was envisaged that the F-111 would remain Australia’s main “strategic strike deterrent” up until the arrival of the JSF, but Canberra has concerns about the continued structural integrity of the aircraft and seeks an interim replacement. It has chosen the F/A18 Super Hornet which has left airpower advocates in Australia unhappy. They would like to see the F-111 (if not also the JSF) replaced with the F-22 Raptor.
It is argued that the Super Hornet is way inferior to the F-22 and cannot match the new generation Russian fighters appearing in the South-East Asian region, hence we are suffering from a “bomber gap”. Their real agenda is to ditch the JSF in favour of the F-22 and keep the F-111 in the meantime.
The Government argues that when loaded with external bombs for strategic missions the F-22 loses many of its cutting edge advantages and is too expensive, and probably won’t be sold to us by Washington anyway. The debate therefore proceeds, illegitimately, along very narrow grounds.
In any assessment of a “strategic strike deterrent” force we are concerned with analysing the ability to deliver a certain class of weapons against a certain class of targets in order to deter a certain type of action.
The debate on the bomber gap in Australia is so poor that rarely are these fundamental parameters assessed. Most of the focus goes on just the capabilities of the aircraft.
In all three cases (JSF, Super Hornet, F-22), bomb wise, the main explosive punch will come from 1,000 pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) that are dumb bombs turned smart bombs using Global Position System satellites for target accuracy.
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