Why should Australians worry about the decision to retire the RAAF's F-111 strike bombers in 2010? Why should they care that Australia's new fighter - the Joint Strike Fighter or JSF - will not take to the skies over Australia until at least 2012 and probably later? And what has all this to do with Billy Hughes?
Well it was Hughes in 1925 who said:
The aeroplane comes to us in Australia as a gift from the gods, for it places in our hands and within our resources an agency so exactly suited to our circumstances that we might well regard it as designed for our special benefit and protection.
And he was right: the aeroplane opened up our continent, cut travelling times and connected Australia to the rest of world like never before.
It also presented Australian strategists with a new problem - how would the aeroplane change the nature of war and the defence of Australia?
Since then strategists have convinced politicians to spend the money to ensure Australia was the predominant regional air power. That is until 2010.
That is the year the venerable F-111 will be taken out of service. But it also means that without the JSF in the air to take up the role of strike bomber, Australia may well face a vulnerability it has not faced since World War II.
Many people might say: so what? Australia is under no threat; this will not make any difference.
The people paid to worry about these kinds of things, including myself, respond to that view this way: taxpayers pay big money for these kinds of assets in the certain hope that their very possession will discourage those who might have another view and are prepared to back that view through armed conflict.
Our neighbours are buying ever more advanced aircraft - this was no doubt one of the reasons the Howard Government signed up for the JSF project in 2003.
What the Howard Government failed to do - at the time or since - is have a plan B whereby an alternative aircraft would be available if the JSF was delayed. Singapore, involved in the same JSF project, has a plan B.
In fact so great is the Howard Government's faith in the JSF that the usual tendering processes for very large projects were thrown out the window. The JSF was taken on faith without having taken to the air.
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