Interview with Greg Combet, Minister for Defence Personnel, Material and Science
(Source: Australian Department of Defence; dated Oct. 30, web-posted Nov. 2, 2009)
Radio National - The National Interest - Peter Mares

Joint Strike Fighter Program

PETER MARES:
The cost of building the state-of-the-art Joint Strike Fighter just keeps going up, with the US Defence Force facing a bill that will be $17 billion higher than originally expected before manufacturer Lockheed Martin can get the plane into mass production.

The Joint Strike Fighter program has been an ongoing concern of the Government Accountability Office in the United States. In March that office reported that the aircraft's development was about two years behind schedule and that fully integrated mission capable plane was not expected to enter flight testing until 2012.

In one example of the JSF's problems, only 30 of the 300 test flights scheduled for the last financial year actually took place.

This leaves little room for error for Australia which is planning to buy 100 of the Joint Strike Fighters to replace the RAAF's ageing fleet of F1-11s.

The man who inherited the Coalition Government's decision to buy the JSF - or Joint Strike Fighter - is the Minister for Defence Materiel, Greg Combet.

He recently toured the Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas, where the Fighter is being developed, and he joins us on the line from Newcastle.

Minister, welcome to National Interest.

GREG COMBET:
Thank you very much.

PETER MARES:
Now, it's been reported that the National Security Committee of Cabinet will sign off on the JSF acquisition in late November. Is that true?

GREG COMBET:
Well, National Security Committee of Cabinet meetings are not something that are discussed publicly, but it's certainly the case that we'll be considering the next stage of decision-making for the JSF in the near future.

PETER MARES:
And what is the next stage of decision-making? Does that commit us to buying the plane?

GREG COMBET:
Well, it's just something that, I'm sorry, I can't speculate about and nor can I, of course…

PETER MARES:
No…

GREG COMBET:
...predict the outcome of the discussions.

PETER MARES:
No, no, I didn't mean you to predict the outcome. I meant if we decided to go ahead, does that then commit us to buying the plane?

GREG COMBET:
Oh yes, well, the Government is due to make a decision about the purchase of the aircraft in the very near future and in particular the configuration, if you like, of the way in which we'll purchase it.

PETER MARES:
Now, I - in my introduction I talked about the problems identified by the Government Accountability Office in the United States . What makes you believe that this plane is actually going to get off the ground, as it were?

GREG COMBET:
Well, I've been working on the JSF project myself in two capacities for the last - in excess of 18 months; firstly, as the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Procurement, and since June of this year as the Minister for Defence Materiel and Science.

So I've taken a close interest in it. I've in fact been twice to the Fort Worth facilities of Lockheed Martin in the United States, and only recently I spent a fair deal of time in Washington and talking to our counterparts in the US administration and at the Pentagon as well about progress of the JSF.

I think one of the important things about it that does give the Government confidence about the program overall is that the US is really throwing all of the resources that they have at this particular aircraft.

It's extremely important for the future national security purposes of the United States . It's only recently secured its additional funding, or its funding for the next year from the Congress and now from - with the support of President Obama. And the observation was made to me by many officials in the United States administration, as well as in the military, that the United States has a lot riding on this particular aircraft and there's no way that it's not going to succeed.

Having said that, of course, there are issues about the program that are being ironed out, that this is a fifth generation aircraft that, when successfully developed, will have a tremendous capability and I don't think anyone expects it to be a straightforward effort.

But on all of the information that I have gained from working on the project for a quite a period of time now, the Government does have confidence that this is going to work.

PETER MARES:
What will the cost be to us of these planes?

GREG COMBET:
Well, the Government has budgeted in the ballpark of $16 billion for purchasing up to 100 aircraft. We're confident that we can work within that budgetary projection. But, of course, this is a procurement that will take place over quite a number of years and will - suffice to say, I guess, that the Government is going to be continuing a very close scrutiny of the cost projections for the JSF and to the future. It's one of the issues that we'll be looking at in the very near future again.

But we're also, it needs to be borne in mind, purchasing aircraft further back in the production schedule than the United States will be, and it's typically at those later phases of production when the costs start to come down. And we're looking very carefully at what that profile will look like.

PETER MARES:
Well Australia originally was going to be purchasing quite early in the production phase, in fact compared to other countries. Are you saying we're going to delay our purchases so that we get cheaper planes later in the production run as you say because prices come down as production continues?

GREG COMBET:
Well we've been grappling with quite a number of factors, but in the White Paper that the Government produced earlier this year about six or seven months ago looking at our national security and defence requirements out to the year 2030. The Joint Strike Fighter of course is one of the key elements of our air combat capability that was looked at in detail, and we did allow the - our planned initial operating capability date to slip by 12 months at that time, so that's a decision that's already been taken.

PETER MARES:
So will it slip further though? I mean…

GREG COMBET:
No, no I'm certainly not speculating about that, but our initial operating capability is forecast for that period around 2017 to 2018 or so and that's what we're currently planning on.

PETER MARES:
Other countries are beginning to sort of hedge their bets a bit on the JSF. Denmark, England , England has cut its numbers that it will buy. These decisions all impact on Australia because if other countries cut their orders or if the US were to scale backs its order that will push up the price for Australia.

GREG COMBET:
Well there's a very strong commitment for the aircraft. Just to put it in a bit of perspective. In the US the aircraft production run for the purposes of the US Navy and the US Air Force is likely to be in the order of several thousand aircraft. We're talking about up to 100. Great Britain is confronting some quite significant fiscal constraints and that would be conditioning their thinking.

But the overall commitment of all of the alliance partners to the Joint Strike Fighter is strong on all of our experience and engagement with them, and there's a very strong level of support for this.

Whilst a lot of the criticisms of the program of course get a lot of public airing the fact of the matter is that at the level of capability, at the level of cost and the risk that's still in the program, there's a lot of confidence that this program can be delivered and that the risks are being overcome. A lot of work's been done to try and contain cost, and it's a program where there's a strong level of commitment internationally.

PETER MARES:
Yet the plan has not yet been tested or built and the Coalition made a decision to go with the Joint Strike Fighter back in 2002. It abandoned sort of due diligence, comparisons with other fighters that might have been on offer from other manufacturers, European manufacturers for example. Has the Labor Government looked seriously at other options and whether we might get a better deal somewhere else?

GREG COMBET:
Well firstly just to correct the record slightly there. In fact the aircraft is under construction, is in manufacturing. In fact I witnessed the first aircraft on the production, the first full production aircraft on the line while I was at Fort Worth, and of course prior to that a number of test aircraft have been manufactured and worked on.

There are many different areas of activity ongoing and many of these things are maturing quite well. A lot of work's been done as you'd expect on all of the software code that underpins such a complex piece of capability. So all that's ongoing.

Back to your question though. One of the things that the Rudd Government did early in its term going back into early 2008, the former Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon had a good look at this issue and asked the Defence Force to review effectively the decisions that the Howard Government had made in relation to both the Super Hornets acquisition and the Joint Strike Fighter and to re-evaluate what Australia's future air combat capability needs were and the capability that was promised in the form of the JSF.

So we had a status report at that time which concluded that the JSF was a genuine fifth generation fighter aircraft and that the commitment to it was appropriate for the Government to continue. Obviously we have to keep a very careful eye on the issue of costs of the aircraft and to ensure that the capability is delivered…

PETER MARES:
But what's…

GREG COMBET:
…but we're confident of that process is well in train.

PETER MARES:
What's plan B if the time lines slip and the Joint Strike Fighter's not available by 2017, what's plan B?

GREG COMBET:
Well the Government of course is proceeding also with the purchase of the 24 Super Hornet aircraft which will fill the capability gap if you like as the…

PETER MARES:
That's until 2017, but what happens you know if that capability gap, as it's called, continues?

GREG COMBET:
Oh well the Super Hornets will be in operation well beyond 2017.

So the Government's confident we've got the air combat capability issue covered, but more importantly what I've indicated about our confidence in the JSF program is actually the case. And we're watching very closely all of these issues, we've got a very good project team working on the JSF, and I was very encouraged by the extent of the commitment and the work that's being undertaken in the United States to ensure that the JSF program delivers on what has been promised.

PETER MARES:
Minister thanks very much for your time.

GREG COMBET:
That's a pleasure. Thank you.

-ends-




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