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Canada and the F-35

As an American, I am extremely reluctant to presume to offer Canada advice on how to proceed with the purchase of the F-35 “Joint Strike Fighter.” However, the airplane is the culmination of such malevolent trends in my own country’s defences that I believe any ally and neighbour should be warned about going down the same path.

Three simple questions show what a poor choice the F-35 is for the United States -and for Canada.

What will the F-35 cost? Canada’s Memorandum of Understanding -it’s not a contract -pretends $9 billion (Canadian) will buy 65 F-35s and initial logistics, simulators, spare parts, and more. The unit price for each aircraft in that pitch is “low-to-mid $70M per aircraft.”

That’s hogwash. The current unit price in the Unites States for the F-35 is $155 million. Even considering the discount Canada will get, your Parliamentary Budget Officer has estimated a unit cost of either $129 million or $148 million, depending on estimating factors.

All of those figures are optimistic; both Canada and America should expect to pay more, but neither of us will know the exact amount until all testing is complete in about 2017. If the F-35 price does not increase between now and then, that will be the first time for a combat aircraft in decades, perhaps in history.

How well does the F-35 perform? Canada, and the U.S., will not know what F-35 performance really is until after all testing is complete about six years from now.

Most of the performance rhetoric about the F-35 centres on the terms “Fifth Generation” and “stealth.” Far from an ability to fly anywhere “unseen,” as some have said, stealth limits the ability of selected radars to detect the F-35 to lesser distances. In the presence of other radar types -some of them quite old designs -stealth aircraft can be “seen” routinely at long distance. Americans learned this when in 1999 Serbian air defences in the Kosovo air war shot down one “stealth” F-117 and severely damaged another using quite antiquated radar air defences.

Even if the F-35 lives up to all of its aerodynamic promises -and it won’t -it is so heavy and bulky that its engine gives it less rapid acceleration than American F-18Cs or F-16Cs. The F-35’s hefty weight and its small wings give it a “wing loading” (and as a result manoeuvrability) roughly equivalent to a 1960s era American F-105 fighter-bomber. The F-105 “Lead Sled” was notorious for its inability to defend itself over North Vietnam during the Indochina War. When you put aside all the buzz words, the F-35’s already high cost buys only a major performance disappointment.

Why not wait? Like your government’s proposed purchase of F-35s before all testing is complete and all costs are known, the United States has been rushing to “buy” before we “fly” for decades. It has been a disaster.

Since 2000, Americans have added $320 billion to our Air Force’s budget, a 43-per-cent increase. Since then, our fighter and bomber squadrons declined from 146 to 72, or 51 per cent. This is not a smaller, newer Air Force; it is a smaller older Air Force.

This decay comes from new aircraft cost growth above the growth in the Air Force budget. We have been making decisions on the basis of poorly supported “buy-in” promises. The only way out of this decay is to better understand the future consequences of our contemporary decisions: A challenge that Canada faces on the F-35 in a direct and meaningful sense.

Of course, you are being told to commit now. Your CF-18s are wearing out, and you have industrial incentives. Others face a similar aging problem; some have been offered the very same carrots. In response, the U.S. Navy is keeping alive its F-18 production line, and the U.S. Air Force is extending the operating life of F-16s, as you can do with the CF-18. Others are having second thoughts in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Israel.

It is time to start over. That will require a fly-before-buy prototype competition between affordable and effective designs. That would virtually eliminate the F-35, but it should, nonetheless, be allowed to compete. That is the course I recommend for the United States to end the F-35 fiasco. I urge Canadians to consider the same.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington D.C. He was invited last December to comment on the F-35 to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on National Defence; this commentary is based on his written testimony.