Speech by Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam to the Senate;
Canberra, July 14, 2017
I thank the minister. I also want to acknowledge Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, who made the reference on the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee report a year or two ago. This is an important one.
The committee received a reference going back a year or two now into the planned acquisition of the F-35 Lightning II, more commonly known as the Joint Strike Fighter. The timing of this government response could not be more relevant. The Greens posted a dissenting report. The committee hedged its bets up to a point and acknowledged that there was some need for a hedging strategy when these aircraft are inevitably delivered late. We do acknowledge that the committee at least went so far as not to pretend that the is nothing wrong with these aircraft. But the Australian Greens recommendation, pure and simple, was similar to what it looked like the Canadian government was going to attempt. This was quite simply to reopen this for tender.
This is the world's most expensive piece of military hardware. This is a trillion-dollar military acquisition program. It was signed up to by Prime Minister John Howard back in the day, sight unseen, in a hotel room in Washington DC. That is how we managed to get into this mess.
All of the normal procurement processes run by the Air Force or by the ADF more generally, particularly for an acquisition of this extraordinary scale, were completely bypassed by a Prime Minister acting unilaterally. That is how we have ended up in this inordinately expensive mess.
It is not all that surprising. I would confess to be disappointed but not surprised that the government disagrees with our sole dissenting recommendation, which is simply to cancel the contract. This is hurling an enormous amount of good money after bad. I discovered in budget estimates, the week before last, that effectively the Australian taxpayer is still only on the help for the two aircraft that we took delivery of. They flew into Avalon a couple of months back and were unable to continue to their forward destination because there was electrical activity in the area where the planes were scheduled to go—of course, because of the risk of fuel catching fire within the aircraft. These damn things cannot fly within a certain proximity of electrical storms. How on earth does the government intend to deploy these things to Tyndall or anywhere else in the north of Australia? Politicians from down south would probably still be aware that there is a fair bit of electrical activity there, particularly over the summer—these aircraft are going to be grounded.
I did put that question to a couple of the representatives, including Chief of Air Force, in budget estimates the week before last.
They are 17 years into the development of this aircraft, and little old Australia is just trundling along in the wake of the United States in this catastrophically expensive acquisition. The two that we have purchased and will take delivery of are basically unflyable. They cannot be sent into Australia's northern approaches because they are grounded at the first sign of electrical activity. I was assured by I think Air Vice Marshal Davies the other week that this is something they are across, that they have the hang of this, that they are going to be retrofitting these aircraft and that they will be fine. I find it unbelievable that 17 years into this incredibly long and tortuous development process they are still having to pull aircraft apart and fit devices to them internally so that they do not explode if they fly within a certain distance of a storm. It is somewhat mind-boggling.
I was trying to do two things the other night. One was to establish whether the government could tell us what the total acquisition will cost. How much is it going to cost to procure these aircraft and sustain them until the 2030s or 2040s? Just a rough estimate was all I was after. They could not tell us. That is work that is apparently still under development 17 years after Prime Minister Howard got us on the hook. They could not tell us. There are figures like $17.7 billion for 72 jets. That obviously does not include the total acquisition cost. There is a sustainment figure that goes out to 2024, which is about one-third of the expected design life of the aircraft. After that they simply do not know. Can you imagine what could be done in this country with $17½ billion, which is just the amount that we know about?
I think it is reasonable to be able to go into an estimates committee and find out 17 years into the purchase of these wretched aircraft how much they will cost and get some kind of coherent answer in response, but I could not. I do not even blame the Air Force folk. They are just basically doing the job of procuring these things. They are having to deal with the United States government and with a massive defence contractor in Lockheed Martin, which will not tell them, because, quite possibly, they do not know either. I do not think there is any doubt at all that we are going to see future cost blowouts in this.
This is not something that the Greens have come up with. It was the precise purpose of Senator Whish-Wilson moving this inquiry to the references committee. It was opposed by the government at the time, as though they did not actually want to know how much this thing is going to cost. It was supported by the Labor Party, to their credit, which was how the reference got on its feet.
There are those in the United States military establishment whose job this is. Obviously American taxpayers are even more heavily on the hook than those of Australia. In January this year Pentagon Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, Dr Michael Gilmore, produced a report—once a year they produce a report that basically goes into all the defence boondoggles and hideous cost overruns—and it had a couple of pages on the joint strike fighter. It said in part:
“The Services have designated 276 deficiencies in combat performance as "critical to correct" in Block 3F …”
These are not even the aircraft that Australia is taking delivery of. These are the next ones in the pipeline, the ones that are supposedly better. It went on to say:
Deficiencies continue to be discovered at a rate of about 20 per month …
Every one and a half days they find something else wrong with this aircraft.
Not only was the government not interested in this inquiry getting on its feet—and I think it did enormously valuable work; it apparently thinks everything is just going to be fine. There is an incredible difference with the way the government considers spending on health care, education, public transport and critical infrastructure and the miserly way the government handles expenditure on income support for people. Compare that with the open chequebook, take-as-much-as-you-like approach to defence contracts. We see it unwinding at the moment with the submarine acquisition. We have seen it over and over again.
The worst-case study I have ever come across is that of the joint strike fighter, because the answer effectively that will come back from the minister will be: 'It will cost whatever it costs. We have no plan B. We don't know what else to do, and that's why we can't tell you how much it is going to cost. Not only can we not tell you; we don't really care. We're going ahead with it anyway.'
It is a remarkable abdication of responsibility.