It is the Lockheed Martin F-35 silly season again. Every few weeks, the Joint Strike Fighter’s critics feed a story to the media about the aircraft’s alleged shortcomings. That happened in Australia earlier this week.
Air Power Australia, which describes itself as an independent defence think-tank, was formed by several ex-Royal Australian Air Force officers and is opposed to the selection of the JSF for the country. Recently, it claimed that the fighter displayed inferior performance and range when compared to the latest Russian and Chinese aircraft during simulated war games conducted by USA-based think-tank RAND Corp.
Local and international media picked this up and reported on it extensively, leading to a re-opening of the debate on the F-35′s viability as the future of Australia’s air force strike capability. There was only one problem – the report was false. Simply put, it was another example of the sensationalist reporting has crept in with regards to the F-35.
RAND responded by saying: “Those reports are not accurate. RAND did not present any analysis at the war game relating to the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, nor did the game attempt detailed adjudication of air-to-air combat. Neither the game nor the assessments by RAND in support of the game undertook any comparison of the fighting qualities of particular fighter aircraft.”
Australian defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon waded in, saying that he was one of the few people in Australia who had access to the entire classified briefing on the JSF’s capability. The F-35′s detractors were misrepresenting the aircraft’s alleged deficiencies, he added.
The thinking in Canberra has not changed in the last few months. Australia remains committed to the F-35 programme, but it will not make a decision on whether it would actually purchase the aircraft until some time next year. If there is a further delay, it could order more Boeing F/A-18E/Fs to prevent a further drop in its strike capability. That option, however, appears unlikely for now.
The delays and problems that have plagued the F-35 have been widely reported, and the aircraft has some way to go before it convinces many in the industry about its viability. Given what it sets out to do, it is good that there is a healthy debate about the programme.
However, that does not mean that the F-35 deserves some of the pot shots that it gets. Its critics would do well to check their facts – and with RAND – first before making any public statements in the future.