The company building Australia’s next-generation fighter planes says it would be naive to pretend there aren’t problems with the fleet.
But air force chiefs are confident the controversial F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighters are the best the Department of Defence can get.
Australia is spending $17.1 billion to acquire 72 of the Lockheed Martin planes by 2023.
But they’ve been dismissed as an expensive flop with the jets facing difficulties including pilot visibility issues, stealth coatings peeling off, an inability to fly during lightning storms due to the risk of exploding, and software problems.
A report by the Pentagon’s top weapons tester has also raised doubts about its capabilities, including software and engineering deficiencies.
Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program general manager, says nothing in that report was a surprise to his team.
However, that didn’t mean they weren’t doing anything about it.
“When you look at any program this complex … to assert there would be no problems would be naive,” he told a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.
“This is an amazing plane – I have high confidence that we’ll solve these problems as we have in the past.”
The defence department appears content too, saying the jets are their best and only option.
Air force chief Leo Davies said the planes had significant advantages over the F18s.
“I have no concerns that would have me come to a conclusion that the transition … will not occur on time,” he said.
Chris Deeble, the force’s former program manager, acknowledged some risks existed in the training system, including maintenance.
Independent military and policy think tank Air Power Australia was dismissive of the plan, saying “blue sky marketing” was overshadowing major problems with the aircraft.
“It has all the hallmarks of a Ponzi scheme,” head Peter Goon said.
“When the product fails recruit as many clients as you can, promote the product as loudly as you can, keep the cash flowing for as long as the market remains blind to its failure.”
The aircraft was also a risk to the ANZUS alliance – Australia’s security pact with the US.
Mr Goon described the aircraft’s computer system as a “digital dog leash”.
Retired wing commander Chris Mills insists Australia will never achieve regional air superiority with the F-35, describing it as a “jackass of all trades and masterful of none”.
The Sir Richard Williams Foundation took an opposing view, saying the aircraft was unique, revolutionary and represented a generational change.
Former RAAF chief Errol J McCormack said the F-35 was the only viable candidate that would meet the full range of Australia’s air superiority needs in 2025 and beyond.
But he admitted Lockheed Martin gave thousands of dollars in sponsorship to fund his organisation’s seminars.