For the Prime Minister, sovereignty is reduced to possessing 70 fighter jets

Feb 22, 2021

Prime Minister Scott Morrison appears to be suffering from the neurological condition visual agnosia – the inability to recognise certain objects for what they are. It is a condition popularised the neurologist, Oliver Sacks, is his book on the condition, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales.

Credit – Unsplash

How else to explain his pronouncement, as though from the Book of Revelation, when sitting in the cockpit of an RAAF F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, that “this is what sovereignty looks like”. Sovereignty was not, as previously understood by those who had inquired into this highly contested concept in political theory, the ultimate overseer, or authority, in the decision-making process of the state and in the maintenance of order.

No! It was, in the Prime Minister’s new dispensation, reduced to Australia possessing at least 70 of the advanced military aircraft he was sitting in. Sovereignty, in his mind, is objectified and anchored in the sacred object that is the F-35.

More precisely, the object of Morrison’s conviction is the most expensive weapons system ever acquired by the United States and, as with such acquisitions, an almost invariable rule was affirmed: it was delivered late, over budget, under-performing, and with a legacy of as yet unresolved issues. Indeed, it’s tempting to view the F-35 as a constellating force: around it just about everything that has historically beset the military procurement system of the US is in full view, as well as those of a more recent vintage that occur as quick as one of them is addressed.

In design, this was close to inevitable because of the “Joint” descriptor: it was an attempt to satisfy the requirements of the US Air Force, the US Navy (two versions) and the US Marine Corps. Notwithstanding that all aircraft incorporate compromises, the proliferation of end-use operators exacerbated problems at every turn.

To make the general point with just two recent examples. First, the Prime Minister’s very public episode of visual agnosia on 8 February was preceded only three weeks earlier by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Testing reports that the F-35 remains marred by 871 software and hardware deficiencies – a reduction of just two from the previous year – that could undercut readiness, missions or maintenance, according to the Pentagon’s testing office.

Many dated to before 2018. None, users are reassured, is alleged to prejudice flight safety, or to detract significantly from the aircraft’s lethality, despite the fact that the gun has been identified as having “unacceptable” accuracy and its mountings subject to cracking.

Second, two days later the US Air Force F-35 jet team that performs at air shows around the world announced that it was scaling back appearances in 2021 as a consequence of a growing shortage of engines that are taking longer to maintain. This was a consequence of, inter alia, a worsening service-wide shortage of engines in general and previously unreported shortcomings with engine blade coatings in particular.

The problems leading in to this situation are described as “myriad”, their extent out to 2022 projected to remove at least five per cent of the USAF’s F-35s from readiness, and quite possibly as many as 20 per cent by 2025 unless drastic action is undertaken.

Though these developments provide a serious reproach to Morrison’s perspective on sovereignty through technophilia, they do not, however, throw it into the category of the absurd, bizarre and ridiculous until an understanding is acquired of the US’s own issues with sovereignty. In a word, its situation may be described as a travesty of the concept.

The pandemic has illustrated this to a marked extent but what is not appreciated is that in all core aspects of its Grand Strategy, the US is sovereignty-bankrupt. The following is an injuriously brief summary of the voluminous literature – most of it found in government reports and peer-reviewed papers – on the country’s defence acquisition arrangements.

Although the US considers itself a capitalist market economy, in matters of defence acquisition, it operates as an oligopoly when it is not explicitly a monopoly. Worse, the relationship between industry and government is best described as adversarial; often times it is a case of the latter extorting from the former.

The framing process is straightforward. Contractors tend to underbid in the reasonable certainty that subsequent cost increases will eventually fall their way. The longer the contract has been under way, the greater the certainty.

Principal contractors then disperse the manufacturing processes to as many states in the Union that can satisfy demand. As employment is generated so, too, is the local economy dependent on the program – a pressure that incumbent Congressional representatives understand innately. It’s a corruption of rational acquisition, but it’s a normalised, routinised corruption, and regarded as acceptable in a country politically dominated by corporations.

Faults in the weapon being acquired undergo a series of standard reactions: the operator (in this case the USAF) reports it as a result of operational testing. In most cases the contractors denies the fault exists or, rather, it exists only in the mind of the operator. After negotiation, the fault is frequently accepted as real, but the contractors deny all responsibility. It is, rather, the result of interventions by the operator that were not specified in the contract. Accordingly, the contractors announce the fault will either not be fixed or fixed only after further payments from the Pentagon. For the contractors this constitutes a virtuous circle.

The process, moreover, is a “natural” consequence of the increasingly complicated weapons system which the US (and Australia) buys: they are sustained by increasingly complicated support programs, provided by way of long-term contracts that are so highly profitable that, under the cover of intellectual property rights, they militate against systems that can be maintained by uniformed service personnel.

Australia is inescapably infected by this system, the configurations of which (some criminal) have been known for decades. To act in ignorance of it, or even to act despite it, requires a defence of the indefensible.

For now, two questions. First (assuming the RAAF have acquired the full suite of the F-35’s Distributed Aperture System): is it essential to mission effectiveness for the pilot to be wearing a A$835,000 helmet in an aeroplane that runs to an hourly operating cost of A$56,000? Second, is it still the case, as the Australian National Audit Office reported 14 months ago, that Defence does not know the costs of maintaining the F-35?

Perhaps these are second order questions. The crucial issues relate to why the sovereignty of Australia in general, and the RAAF in particular, is hostage to a foreign power in decline, and which itself is explicitly and chronically hostage to the contractors that manufacture its weapons systems.

That said, it must be said that strategic analysis inadequately explains and conveys the nature of Scott Morrison’s mystical adoration of a deeply flawed piece of technology. What is needed are composers such as Michael Nyman, and script writers of the order of Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn.

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