Can the F-35 ensure Western air superiority in the Asia-Pacific? This question inevitably leads to passionate debate among military experts and scholars alike.
Vocal critics of Australia’s $16 billion plus F-35 commitments, such as Carlo Kopp, Research Fellow at Monash University and Co-Founder of Air Power Australia, believe that the F-35 is little more than “a specialised battlefield interdictor lacking the performance, stealth and sensor suite for air superiority.”
In the frankest terms, Kopp reasons “the F-35 is not a viable design and could never meet Australia’s national security needs. Claims otherwise have been repeatedly shown to be incorrect, and mostly based upon naive, incorrect or absent assessments of the capabilities of contemporary Russian and Chinese built weapon systems deployed in Asia.”
He backs up his argument by asserting that the F-35’s aerodynamic deficiencies make it unlikely to be employed effectively as an air defence interceptor “while its stealth performance is provably insufficient for defensive/offensive counter-air and anti-surface warfare strike operations against contemporary regional capabilities.” This is despite the Pentagon’s promises that its allies will receive comparable stealth capabilities to American versions of the platform.
He therefore contends that the “F-35 is incapable of making any useful contribution to the defence of Australia’s northern sea-air gap,” which most analysts believe is the top national defense priority for the nation.
This begs the question: Why then would Australia continue to pursue such a flawed program?
In Kopp’s assessment, it is because the Australian Department of Defence (ADoD) lacks the internal capacity to properly assess and define Australian air superiority requirements; suggesting that the ADoD has based their next generation platform requirements on “briefings provided by foreign contractors supplying replacement equipment.”
Kopp therefore is not surprised that Canberra is now considering the F/A-18 Super Hornetas a possible gap alternative to the F-35 despite the fact that “the F/A-18F has similar performance and capability deficiencies to the F-35, and is equally incapable of credibly performing against modern regional threats.” In his view, ADoD is just repeating a long-established pattern of behavior in choosing products without aligning them with air superiority requirements.
While his conclusions may seem extreme to American defence strategists, Kopp’s perspectives are not surprising to Australian defence policy analysts, who see him as a part of an outspoken but accepted minority that remains variably influential in Australian policy circles. This faction argues that Australian air superiority must be designed to unilaterally counter the most advanced capabilities in the region, including the capabilities of China and India; a position that clearly derives from a larger debate in Australian foreign policy – What represents a probable set of adversary capabilities that must be unilaterally countered in order to ensure Australian national security?
While he does not argue China represents a threat, Kopp contends China does present Australians with a very high strategic risk due to its size and the sophistication of its new generation of weapons. For his camp, Australian air superiority requirements therefore must be based upon the assessed capabilities of squadrons of Indian Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA and Chinese Chengdu J-20 series fighters rather than the few fourth generation platforms being fielded by ASEAN members. (He assumes that the latter will be progressively replaced in time by the T-50 PAK-FA and export models of the J-20 as smaller nations now buying Flankers switch to buying these platforms in 5-10 years time.)
If the T-50 PAK-FA and J-20 were the benchmark, he concludes the F-35 would be insufficient for head-to-head combat. Furthermore, he posits that “recent advances in Russian and Chinese Surface to Air Missile and counter-stealth radar technology … nullify designs like the F/A-18E/F and F-35” as well.
Instead, Kopp opines that the F22A is the only viable existing platform capable of ensuring Australian air superiority and enabling optimal support for regional and global peace and stability operations: “The only aircraft type which can credibly compete (with the T-50 PAK-FA and J-20) is the U.S. built F-22A Raptor. If Australia came to the aid of the U.S. with a fleet of 50+ F-22s, it could make a major contribution of high strategic value to the U.S., in any Asia-Pacific conflict. More importantly the F-22 balances strategically any future ASEAN or other Asian buys of the T-50 PAK-FA and J-20 and permits Australia participation in any global interventions where a modern threat exists.”
Unfortunately, as Sam Roggeveen, Fellow at Lowy Institute for International Policy, points out: “Former U.S. Defense Secretary Gates doubled down on the F-35 by ending production of the F-22. For countries like Australia looking for a fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 (currently) is the only game in town.”
While agreeing with Kopp that the F-35 may be insufficient against fifth generation fighters, Roggeveen maintains a polar opposite view on why the debate on Australian air superiority is flawed. For him, it is not merely just a question of adversary capabilities but also of intent.
Roggeveen therefore questions why Australia would need anything more than the F-35 to begin with. Even with squadrons of Chinese J-20s in play, he believes that the only probable scenarios for confrontation with China would involve regional conflicts in far away places such as the Taiwan Strait.
In response, Roggeveen raises an interesting counter-point: “Australia would only ever go to war with China by America’s side. So, even if Australia did have air power that could match the PLAAF and PLANAF one-for-one, could Australia bring decisive strategic weight to any military engagement? At most, we are going to buy 100 (F-35s), and only a fraction of those would be committed to, say, a war over Taiwan. Would that even make a difference to the larger strategic picture?”
From his perspective, the answer is not the F22A (if it were available) or a more advanced next generation platform. Instead, it is at most the F-35 or perhaps even “a cheaper, less capable aerial platform.”
As he observes, the latter would afford Australia the luxury of investing in “a potentially decisive capability such as diesel powered submarine killers (SSKs),” which could be of greater value to the U.S. if a strategic conflict with China ever materializes.
While this might be an interesting strategic option for Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding or General Dynamics Electric Boat, it certainly is not the one preferred by Lockheed Martin, who must ensure that their Australian commitments remain firm. If the company fails to do so, it risks losing future revenue for shareholders and bringing further harm to the F-35 program’s already tarnished image.
Image credit: Banner F-35/Image by Lockheed Martin/flickr (Creative Commons); In text [in order of appearance] – FA-18F Super Hornet/Image by Ned Harris/flickr; Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA/Image by FooFighterSpotting/flickr; Chengdu J-20/Image by Yinlei/flickr (Creative Commons).