Senate debates

Thursday, 26 November 2015


Defence Procurement

7:08 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I have recently taken over the defence portfolio for the Australian Greens, and at the most recent estimates I was surprised to find I was the only senator asking Defence for updates on the troubled, plagued F35 Joint Strike Fighter acquisition.

As you yourself would know yourself from your time in opposition, Mr Acting President Back, it is sometimes competitive amongst the senators to get a question out on a burning issue, so it was with some surprise that at the end of the day I noted that no-one had asked Defence about the statement of the new Canadian Prime Minister, Mr Trudeau, that Canada would be abandoning the Joint Strike Fighter program. I wanted to know whether our Defence officials had any comment on the potential impact that would have on Australia's delivery and cost of the F35 and whether they had any comment on why Canada had taken this decision. It was certainly a non-trivial issue in the context of our own procurement of the Joint Strike Fighter.

I enquired of my fellow Greens senator, Scott Ludlam—who used to have the defence portfolio—as to why no-one else was asking questions on this, and he said that he was often the only senator asking questions about the problems experienced by the Joint Strike Fighter and the need for this particular acquisition. No doubt there are other ways that parliamentarians can put sensitive questions to Defence officials. I have been to confidential briefings in standing committees and other forums, but I am confident—as are my colleagues in the Greens, from the significant feedback we have received from a number of stakeholders—that this issue has become a significant matter of public interest. And so it should be. Questioning a procurement of this size is critical not only in the context of our required defence capabilities but also in the context of budget constraints and our nation's other expenditure needs.

I understand why public officials—many of whom are experts in their fields—sometimes find frustrating basic questions about the spending of public money or criticisms they may see in the media over their decisions, but as Senator Ludlam has said previously on this particular issue of the Joint Strike Fighter, this is our job. And I understand why politicians and others may be reluctant to raise these issues in the public domain. It could be because of the regard that they have for senior officers in the defence forces or because of a fear of being seen to be publicly criticising our defence forces, or perhaps it is a fear of being seen as undermining national security. These sensitivities should always be respected, but on their own they are not good enough reasons to not do our job of asking the hard questions when necessary.

The defence budget over the forward estimates is $132 billion. Individual procurement projects are some of the biggest individual spending decisions any government can make. The Abbott government talked about raising defence spending to an arbitrary two per cent of GDP, which would be additional cost to the budget. Yet we do not know if the Turnbull government is going to continue that aim. We will have to wait for the defence white paper. Hopefully we will be seeing that in the new year, Senator Smith—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President.

I am sure we all agree, and even Defence would agree, that like any other department they should not be getting a blank cheque for their purchases. From my recent observations—notably around submarine procurement and naval ship building—we seem to spend a considerable amount of time in this place talking about essentially industry policy—logistical detail on where and how this equipment and hardware should be built rather than what it is intended to be used for, if we need it and whether there are there better ways of achieving the same strategic goals. But I have seen many articles in the media questioning and criticising the motives behind different defence procurements. No doubt this is what is motivating public interest in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

I would like to note I was encouraged to find on the Army website, when I was doing some research, a comment welcoming debate on their asset procurement. The website said:

Army welcomes debate on LAND 400 and other capability issues. Debate and independent thinking on Army and how it does its business is an important part of understanding what we provide for the Government of Australia and its people. Army is prepared to provide background information to ensure that facts used in the debate are accurate and represent the most up to date information available.

This is exactly the sort of public debate we need across all our defence forces. And this is why today I moved to establish a Senate inquiry into the procurement of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter. The terms of reference I have submitted are: to look at the suitability of the F35 to Australia's strategic interests, with particular reference to the air defence needs that the aircraft is intended to fulfil; the cost of the program to Australia; changes in the acquisition timeline; the performance of the aircraft in testing in Australia and overseas; potential alternatives to the Joint Strike Fighter; and any other related matters. This inquiry, if successful, will be about confidence in process. This is about the public's right to know how their money is being spent and if we are getting value for money. I would like to see many of the criticisms levelled at this procurement answered by a wide range of experts and discussed in detail at this inquiry.

I know that former Air Marshal Brown was critical of armchair critics of this now much-delayed program, which no doubt included my colleague Senator Ludlam, but I note it is not just armchair critics who have been raising issues about the Joint Strike Fighter. The US Government Accountability Office Auditor-General recently found:

… the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has continued to experience development and testing difficulties over the past year, largely due to a structural failure on the F-35B durability test aircraft, an engine failure, and more test point growth due to software challenges than expected. In addition, the F-35 engine reliability is not improving as expected and will take additional time and resources to achieve reliability goals.

The aircraft contractor delivered 36 aircraft as planned in 2014; however, none of these were delivered with warfighting capabilities. Supplier performance has been mixed, and late deliveries could pose risk to the program's plans to increase production. The contractors are taking steps to address these issues.

Cost and affordability challenges for the F-35 persist. To execute its current procurement plan, the F-35 program will need to request and obtain, on average, $12.4 billion annually in acquisition funds for more than two decades. It is unlikely DOD will be able to sustain such a high level of annual funding and if required funding levels are not reached, the program's procurement plan may not be affordable.

Additionally, during testing, the Department of Defense's Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation compiled a report on the progress and failures of the F-35 program. They identified problems with the plane's Block 2B software system that oversees the plane's warfare capabilities including navigation, weapons delivery and friend or foe identification as well as problems in aircraft integration that would require further hardware and software modifications. The report also identified that the F-35 has a number of components that require maintenance more frequently than desired, making an already expensive plane more expensive to maintain.

Finally, there are serious software issues. The Autonomic Logistics Information System that provides the IT backbone of the F-35 and monitors all the on-board issues with the plane is 'behind schedule, has several capabilities delayed or deferred to later builds, and has been fielded with deficiencies.' On top of this we get continual reports of inability to perform the jobs they are required to do.

Most recently, we have heard the cost and production blow-outs in the US have caused them to start rethinking the need to purchase dozens of more stopgap planes, which Australia has done in the past, to fill the space that the Joint Strike Fighter is meant to fill. These delays may also mean the existing fleet of fighter jets in the US may need to be upgraded at great cost and kept on the shelf for years more.

As this is going to the references committee, I hope this place considers the terms of reference and the intention of the Greens in that we have a good, close look at the Joint Strike Fighter. The public is interested in this very large acquisition of defence hardware. For defence reasons and for a number of other reasons we would like the Senate, in fact, all parliamentarians, to consider having closer scrutiny and public discussion around the Joint Strike Fighter, F-35.