Australia is buying the Lockheed F-35, the so-called Joint Strike Fighter (JFS). This is a hugely expensive weapon, both in regard to its purchase price and to its on-going maintenance costs. Moreover, it is well behind schedule, with the makers encountering all manner of unforeseen development issues; and one would anticipate that such a complex piece of machinery would be hard to keep operational. These are reasons to think that buying the plane is a waste of money, money that could be much better spent eslewhere. I want to set aside these very real concerns here and ask why a country like Australia would want a fleet - 58 no fewer! - of one of the most high-tech and 'sophisticated' weapons in existence. What role is it supposed to play? Here's what the Australian Prime Minister said on announcing the decision to buy the plane; "Together with the Super Hornet and Growler electronic warfare aircraft, the F-35 aircraft will ensure Australia maintains a regional air combat edge". What do we make of this?
Australia is not at war with anyone at the moment, so the JFS cannot be said to be something that is to be used for maintaining a 'combat edge' immediately, in the conflict at hand. So the answer must be either that Austalia must have a combat edge in some future war, or that it will be for the ends of deterrence. Australia, like other liberal democractic states, is not in the business of starting wars, or, more circumspectly, Australia would not like to be represented as a country that has aggressive designs. It must therefore be for defence, in the event of war, or for deterrence to prevent attack by others. These ‘others’ are apparently going to found in the ‘region’ - Australia could hardly defend itself, or deter, say China or Russia and in saying that one is only talking about capability. There is no conceivable reason why either of these countries would seek to invade Australia. Once upon a time, The Soviet Union would have targeted Australia’s communications network with nuclear warheads, and also probably still does, but that was in the context of a possible global nuclear war – and there would have been no defence against such an attack. But what of the ‘region’?
Indonesia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea and are Australia’s largest and closest neighbours. The former two states are the only plausible candidates for rival regional military powers. Australia has fought alongside New Zealand in two world wars and has essentially the same colonial and cultural heritage. A conflict between the two is as likely as England invading Wales, and hence there is no conceivable reason for Australia to need any combat edge of New Zealand. That leaves Indonesia. Is it likely that Indonesia would make moves against Australia that would require a response by a fleet of JSFs? Indonesia and Australia have good relations with one another: In recent years, the relationship has been characterised by growing mutual trade of $14.9 billion in 2011–2012, an increase of 8.3% on the previous year, in addition to close links in government, education, and defence under the Lombok Treaty. Both nations are members of the G20, ASEAN Regional Forum, and the Australia-New Zealand-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. Is it likely that they will go to war, or that Indonesia needs to be deterred by a fleet of JFS? No, surely not.
Is there therefore any good reason why Australia should have the very best and latest combat aircraft, assuming the JFS fits the bill? I have no doubt at all that the Australian Government would acknowledge that the is no present military requirement for the aircraft, but if questioned further, would say that no one knows what the future holds and that if a threat did develop it must have the means to defend against it, and moreover those means take a long time to acquire, modern weapons systems being what they are. This is the ‘standard justification’ for nearly all defence spending. What this neglects, and what is so very dangerous, is that the introduction of new weapons systems into a region upsets the ‘strategic balance’. Other states, states like Indonesia, think the same way as Australia. They too have defence issues and they also worry about what could happen in the future. They may well see the JFS giving Australia a combat edge and wonder why Australia feels it needs this. Perhaps Australia has aggressive hegemonic designs, to be played out in the future? If it is rational for Australia to think along these line, then it is rational for Indonesia to do so as well. If they then aquire the means to deal with the JFS, Australia will have lost its ‘combat edge’, and wasted a very great deal of money. This would then be an instance of what is known as the “Security Dilemma”, of which more later and elsewhere. Time will tell if it is to be played out in our region.