Malcolm Fraser’s Noisy Dotage

fraserIn the latest manifestation of his conservative apostasy, one-time Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has suggested Australia should close Pine Gap, expel the U.S. military forces training in the Northern Territory and resile from its obligations under the ÅNZUS Treaty.

In the most outrageous of his outbursts of bilious anti-Americanism, Mr Fraser assumed the inevitability of war over the Senkaku islands and decided Australia’s interests demanded a re-interpretation of the Treaty, to avoid becoming a target for Chinese missiles. In a few sentences, he implicitly dismissed the role of diplomacy in resolving disputes, implied America’s “pivot” to the western Pacific was an insupportable affront and provocation to China, and urged Australia to creep, cringingly, back into an isolationist shell. How it was to survive, let alone defend itself,  he did not bother to explain.

What touched off Mr Fraser’s latest effort to appear relevant in 2015 is not clear, but it may have been the announcement to commit a further $12.4 billion to puchase an extra 58 F-35 Lightning II strike fighters. Although not part of the government’s announcement on the purchase, the order, which will eventually enable the RAAF to field 72 of the stealth aircraft in three operational squadrons, is clearly part of Australia’s contribution to the “pivot”.

Given America’s commitment to the F-35 as the principal front-line attack weapon for each of its services — Marines, Air Force and Navy — Australia’s decision to achieve inter-operationability by putting substantial numbers of this plane into the air was a foregone conclusion. It is part of the price Australia must pay to earn the protection it claims under ANZUS.

Bi-partisanship on the issue of the American alliance has long been a feature of Australian politics, but the first risk of a serious dispute since the Korean War seems to have given our prisoner of conscience  weak knees. For several years after the war, Australians were content to manifest their gratitude for the U.S. effort in the Pacific via the Coral Sea celebrations.  But concerns were growing – about Indonesia, Indo-China and the potential threat of a re-armed Japan. The three-way Australia-New Zealand-United States security treaty was only arranged in 1951 on Australia’s insistence as a precondition for signing the peace treaty with Japan. Simultaneously the United States entered into similar security arrangements with the Philippines and Japan. This achieved America’s purpose of excluding Britain and defeating proposals for a link with NATO.

As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson records in his memoir Present at the Creation, Australia sought a direct and permanent relationship between the Chiefs of Staffs of the three nations, but the U.S. military strongly resisted the idea. “When informed of the Australian-New Zealand proposal they (the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee) broke into such a sustained tantrum of negation that I took it upon myself to withdraw the suggestion,” he wrote.

When the issue came up again the following year at the ANZUS meeting in Hawaii, Australia acquiesced in American moves to manoeuvre Britain out of an observer status in the Pacific alliance.  Perhaps the head of Australia’s mission Richard Casey believed he had obtained, quid pro quo, the access to American military planning he sought, but Acheson knew differently.

Seeking a way to head off the Chiefs of Staff request, he decided  to duchess the colonials. “Both countries suffered from a paucity of knowledge of what was going on, and faulty appreciation of current situations” he cabled President Truman. “So Admiral Radford (Commander in Chief Pacific) and I decided that instead of starving the Australians and New Zealanders, we would given them indigestion.”  At the end of two days extensive briefing on the world situation, the Australians and New Zealanders settled for political liaison through the ANZUS Council and military planning through the Commander in Chief Pacific.

Since 1985 political liaison has been through annual meetings between the U.S. Secretary of State and Australia’s Foreign Minister.  Military ties have strengthened, and Australia shares signals intelligence through the UKUSA agreement linking Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, the so-called “Five Eyes” alliance.

The JSF purchase is merely the latest in a line of excuses for critics of Australia’s close military links with the United States to loose their irregular but persistent demands for a severance of obligations. But it could also serve as a wake-up call to a country that has always got its defence on the cheap, often sending the bill to  great and powerful friends. The technology of modern warfare involves higher and higher price tags and the F-35 is at the tip of high technology.

Any debate in Australia over the cost is nothing compared to the firestorm it generates in the U.S. The lobby group Taxpayers For Commonsense (TFC) has just published a scathing critique of the program and its cost over-runs. Based on official, publicly released documents, TFC calculates that, in FY2015, this single aircraft will eat $8 billion or 1.6% of the entire Pentagon budget.  It judges the plane “unaffordable.”

Committed to an aircraft for the three services (that’s what the “joint” in JSF means, not multi-nations as the RAAF and the ABC claim),  The Americans are saddled with huge additional costs multiplied by delays. TFC says altogether $39,1 billion has been lost in RDT&E (Research Development, Test and Evaluation) that was never in the original program costs for the F-35. Some of these costs will inevitably be amortised over the aircraft supplied to Australia.

The Defence Minister has estimated the cost of each plane at $90 million. The government has made much of the benefits of spending on the Williamstown and Tindal RAAF bases for the new aircraft, but as a separate cost. But the Americans calculate it differently.

The U.S. Air Force  is budgeting $3.8 billion (US) next year to buy 26 F-35 aircraft. Taxpayers for Commonsense says that makes the “Gross Weapon System Unit Cost” (the aircraft only) of the Air Force version US$149.7 million. That is twice the unit cost of last American order of F/A-18F Super Hornets (the plane Australia is buying as an interim strike fighter) The Air Force version of the F-35 is the plane Australia is buying, so we must be getting a discount, or value for the offset program.

Here are extracts from the U.S. FY2015 Budget Request for the F-35 program, sourcd from the Taxpayers for Commonsense report: The Unaffordable F-35: While not directly applicable to Australia, these figures indicate that costs do not stop with the purchase of the aircraft. While not directly applicable to Australia, these figures indicate that costs do not stop with the purchase of the aircraft.

American criticism of the F-35 is based not only on the delays and escalating costs; other programs have had to be savaged to provide funds. The A-10 Warthog ground-support aircraft had just been upgraded at a cost of one billion dollars, but all its squadrons are being withdrawn from service.

Unlike Australia, the U.S. has some of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world – the F-22 Raptor, the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Falcon, as well as F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets in both Air Force and Navy carrier service. The F-35 is vital for Australia’s defence, as a belated replacement for the F-111, an aircraft as radical and controversial in its day, and also more expensive than first thought. As in the early 1960s, when the F-111 was ordered during the period of Indonesia’s confrontasi over West New Guinea, we will just have to grin and bear  the cost.

As for Malcolm Fraser, in retirement as incapable of grappling with this technology as he is keeping a clear strategic view of our alliances, the wheel has come full circle. It was Fraser in his last year as prime minister who agreed to Australia monitoring America’s tests of the long-range MX missile into the Tasman Sea. A year later Bob Hawke took office and cancelled the commitment.

Leave a Reply