Australia’s Military Capabilities Up In The Air – Analysis


Concerns about the changing balance of power in the Asia-Pacific are fuelling a debate in Australia about the potential acquisition of 100 F-35s. The decision is important in a country where maintaining regional air superiority remains critical to its national security thinking.

By Eddie Walsh

Last month, Australia’s Minister for Defense Stephen Smith told Parliament that the Australian government should decide by 2013 whether to move forward with the acquisition of 100 F-35s or risk a “looming air combat gap” in the country’s military capabilities. In a country where most aspects of the next-generation fighter program remain a subject of intense debate, both proponents and opponents of the F-35 widely accept a disproportionate role for air superiority in national defense. Historical, economic and geopolitical factors appear to drive this consensus.

Sam Roggeveen, editor of Lowy Institute’s blog, “The Interpreter”, conveys this reality: “There is broad consensus that the best way to defend Australia is through the ‘sea-air gap’ to our North rather than on land. Air superiority is critical for that mission.”

While the northern perimeter may represent the ‘soft underbelly’ for Australian defense planners, a large percentage of Australian national security experts believes that Australia’s neighbors in Southeast Asia (and the South Pacific) do not represent an immediate threat to Australian national security.

Dr Alan Stephens, visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, argues this point with particularly strong conviction: “Australia does not regard any of the ASEAN states as a threat. On the contrary, it regularly conducts bilateral military exercises with some members (for example Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia) and generally has good relations with all of them.”

Australia’s shift from perceiving ASEAN member states, particularly Indonesia, as serious security risks to potential partners with overlapping interests clearly has had profound implications for national security. Andrew Davies, director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), contends that Indonesia’s joint pursuit of the KFX ‘next-generation’ fighter with South Korea is not even considered a major threat to Australian national security interests.

Dominance, modernization and China

For many Australian strategists, prioritizing air superiority does not require a crystalized threat. Australian national security policy traditionally emphasizes air and maritime capabilities regardless of pre-existing regional threats and perceptions of enemy intent because, according to Davies, Australians would prefer not to be caught unprepared in a region known for its fluid and fast-changing regional security dynamics.

Since the importance of air superiority is rarely contested among F-35 protagonists, the argument over the F-111 replacement must instead be viewed as a dispute over what set of capabilities ensures Australia’s continued advantage in regional air superiority capabilities for the foreseeable future.

If sustaining the military’s technological edge is limited to Australia’s immediate neighborhood (i.e., Southeast Asia and Oceania), a large faction of Australian analysts conclude that less advanced – and less costly – platforms such as the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet or F-15 maritime variant would meet Australian air superiority requirements.

However, with major military modernization programs underway in ASEAN member states, military analysts concede the technological capabilities gap between Australia and its ASEAN neighbors could close quickly in the years ahead. For a small minority, this alone justifies Australia’s pursuit of more advanced platforms, including the F-35 and F-22 (if it were available for export).

This minority view does not appear to be a major influence on the F-35 decision though, due largely to the perception that major investments by ASEAN members in acquiring foreign technology will not be sufficient on its own to close the gap with Australia. Stephens illustrates this point – using Indonesia as an example: “With the best will in the world, the Tentara Nasional Indonesia – Angkatan Udara (Indonesian Air Force) is decades away from becoming an advanced air power. They must first resolve systemic problems across almost every discipline.”

Instead, Carl Ungerer, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University and Director at ASPI, points out that rising Asian powers further afield serve as the driving force behind Australia’s pursuit of air superiority and maritime dominance technology: “The incremental steps in ASEAN force modernization is not in any way a driver for Australia’s force posture. China and India are, in that order.”

Although these rising powers may not represent an existential threat to Australian national interests, their capabilities (including the intangibles such as training and doctrine) are assessed to present a serious challenge to Australian air superiority and, as Stephens points out, provide a major impetus for an Australia “looking for capabilities that can exert a disproportionate response and that can shape and deter in the region.”

While there remains a serious debate over the probability of China (Australia’s largest trading partner), and certainly India, Stephens and other experts contend that the capabilities of F-35s are driving acquisitions: “Successive Australian governments have been concerned by the changing balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, especially China’s remarkable growth. As that growth is rapidly translated into impressive military modernization, Australian defense planners have been keenly aware of the need to enhance our ‘strategic’ capabilities. This outlook explains the plan to equip the [RAAF] with F-35s.”

The strategic calculus

Unfortunately for the F-35 program, no clear consensus exists among experts as to whether the platform ensures regional air superiority when compared with the assessed capabilities of rising Asian powers, including the fifth-generation fighters of China and India: the J-20 and the T-50 PAK-FA (jointly developed with Russia).

F-35 proponents, such as Stephens, believe the platform is “head-and-shoulders the best option for Australia. It’s the only available fifth-generation strike fighter; it will be superior to the F-22 in Strike and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), which is hugely important and not sufficiently publicized; and, as a part of the total air defense system the RAAF has constructed, it will be the best air superiority fighter in the region.”

However, opponents openly question the strategic capabilities of the F-35 , including a vocal faction led by Carlo Kopp of Monash University: “In a regional environment where the dominant non-US combat aircraft will be the Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA and Chengdu J-20 series, the only aircraft type which can credibly compete is the US built F-22 Raptor. Other aircraft would suffer prohibitive combat losses against either of these aircraft types, and therefore do not present as credible investments in capability.”

Ultimately, it may not matter for Australia which side is correct given that former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates ended the production of the F-22. Therefore, countries like Australia looking for a US fifth-generation fighter have a very limited – if non-existent – choice: the F-35 is the only model available .

While the majority of experts believe that Australia will still move forward with some portion of its original 100 plane commitment, they also contend that part of the existing budget will be diverted to cover program cost overruns and acquire alternative platforms. The ultimate decision as to how many F-35s versus F/A-18s (or other alternative platforms/technology) will come down to the very difficult calculus between price, schedule and capabilities in the context of a highly dynamic threat environment and history of perceived poor performance by the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin.

Platforms and alternatives

The focus on numbers and platforms may be less compelling than the possible looming debate in Canberra over whether fulfilling the full commitment of export-approved F-35s will be capable of ensuring Australian air superiority over the Asian-Pacific skies.


If Smith’s reassessment of the F-35 commitments mirrors the comprehensive review currently underway by the US Navy, then serious challenges as to the future of those commitments could arise if the reassessment: 1) questioned the F-35’s ability to ensure Australian air superiority against the full range of assessed capabilities of rising Asian powers; 2) argued that the F-22 or another next-generation platform better served Australian air superiority requirements; 3) assessed that advanced drones or other emerging capabilities, either alone or in combination with next-generation platforms, better served Australia’s air superiority requirements; 4) concluded that assessments of rising Asian powers’ capabilities could be countered by a less capable platform – at least for the foreseeable future.

If Australia elects to severely reduce its commitment to the F-35, sobering consequences await the business interests of defense industry partners behind the F-35, especially Lockheed Martin, and likely the strategic interests of the US government. These include the possibility that Smith’s reassessment could further harm Lockheed’s image in international markets , spur a political debate in the US over the decision to end production of the F-22, and/or affect the confidence of US allies in future large-scale, consortium based military development programs.

Ultimately, these consequences would be most severe if Australia’s decision was based on the inability of the F-35 to assure air superiority against the assessed next-generation capabilities of rising Asian powers. This probably would have disastrous implications for Lockheed’s business development efforts elsewhere in Asia ( seen as a key market for future F-35 sales). US strategic interests also could be seriously harmed if America failed to extend to consortium partners other capabilities with the capacity to mitigate their regional security concerns, which could include advanced drone, command and control, anti-access and area-denial and cyber technology.

Eddie Walsh is The Diplomat’s Pentagon correspondent and founder of The Asia-Pacific Reporting Blog. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed @aseanreporting.

Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

ISN Security Watch

The ISN is one of the world's leading open access information and knowledge hubs on IR and security issues, based at ETH Zürich, Switzerland.

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