When Canada’s left-of-center New Democratic Party (NDP) invited me to testify before a mock hearing (on Parliament Hill with only NDP members present) addressing the country’s purchase of the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, I was confident I knew what to expect.
I expected the Canadian politicians, like members of the U.S. Congress, to give vaguely informed (sometimes stunningly misinformed) statements about the F-35, even when they agreed with my position. I expected their questions to be read off of staff memos in a manner so clumsy that it was clear the questioner had only the dimmest understanding, if any, of the words he or she was reading. Follow-up questions based on my responses would be a concept the questioner had never seen any use for. In other words, I didn’t expect much, but the opportunity to inform the debate in Canada about the high cost and low performance of the F-35 was important; so I accepted the invitation.
My expectations were completely wrong. The differences between Canadian politicians and members of Congress are utterly stunning. Unlike here, oversight in the Canadian Parliament is alive and well. In Canada, I found two political behaviors unheard of in the United States: Opposition politicians actually try to understand the issue they are talking about, and they take offense at being lied to.
My re-orientation started when, lo and behold, without giving long, windy, and poorly informed opening statements, the parliamentarians asked questions directly relevant to my testimony about the cost to buy and operate the Canadian version of the F-35. They were not reading off or cribbing from memos but were reacting to what I had said; we had an actual discussion, one member at a time. They probed my estimate of the potential $200 million-per-aircraft cost — not the $75 million Canada’s Department of National Defense (DND) had been advertising. They also poked at my prediction that the cost to operate the F-35, after purchase, would be at least three times DND’s original estimate.
The members’ questions were constructed by themselves on the spot and reflected that several of them had done their homework. For example, Matthew Kellway of Ontario had clearly read and understood an article in Proceedings, the U.S. Naval Institute’s journal, written by the U.S. chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, questioning whether radar-evading “stealth” technology was viable against current and future countermeasures — a key question in Canada, where “stealth” dominates the debate about the F-35 almost as much as cost.
Most remarkable was their predisposition to listen, integrate the new information they heard, synthesize it to formulate a new understanding, and then ask more questions.
It was an utterly stunning contrast to what happens in Congress these days. The Canadians saw the mock hearing not as yet another opportunity to pose in front of the cameras with a script, pretending to be interested but really waiting for the witness to be quiet so the member could say — or read — something more, but as an opportunity to learn and discuss.
After the mock hearing, the staffer of the parliamentarian who had convened the event (Malcolm Allen of Ontario) informed me that Mr. Allen, a senior member, had a total staff of just four people. As a former U.S. Senate staffer, I was dumbfounded, but that explained a lot.
Members of the Canadian Parliament are not surrounded by an incessant beehive of the 20 or so staff people that every U.S. representative has or the 50 to 100 that every senator has. Members of Congress have people literally telling them where to go every 30 minutes, handing them talking points, and stuffing their heads with a constant stream of memos telling them what to think — or rather what the staffer thinks the member wants to be told. This passive and self-serving approach to information dominates Capitol Hill: the principals expect to be fed advice and information at every event to enable them to get through it sounding as if they are in command of the substance. They go through the day like wind-up dolls, dishing out what they are served by their horde of handlers. By contrast, the Canadians walked into the mock hearing ready to discuss the subject and to listen and probe, not posture; that both the press and the public were there did not override their intellect with impulses to primp self-admiringly.
I was given a second dose of this dedication to substance when I was invited to a member’s office later in the day. This turned out to be with three members, and rather than go through a short glad-handing thanking me for my testimony, we talked through the issues for another two hours, with Member Jack Harris of Newfoundland and Labrador leading much of the questioning.
The result of the Canadian approach is a propensity to uncover when Parliament is deceived and an understanding of how to react appropriately. Last year, Canada’s DND was insisting the unit cost of their F-35s would be about $75 million and the total to both buy and operate all 65 aircraft would be about $19 billion. Suspicious, some opposition parliamentarians asked the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO, an organization analogous to the US Congressional Budget Office) to look at costs. PBO estimated a per-aircraft cost of up to $148 million and a total cost of $29.3 billion.
One of the primary reasons national elections were called last year, Canadian politicians debated the F-35 cost issue extensively, with the governing Conservative Party and the DND attacking aggressively, saying the PBO “got it wrong” and “significantly inflated” costs.
But even the election, which the conservatives won, did not end the debate. In 2012, Canada’s Auditor General (analogous to our Government Accountability Office) took another look at F-35 costs to Canada. Its report confirmed that DND had badly understated costs and, in fact, had deliberately withheld more than $10 billion from the estimate it gave Parliament.
The reaction in Canada was most un-American. The DND officials associated with the now-discredited cost figure were publically disowned, even by the government, which took responsibility for the F-35 purchase from that department and gave it to the Minister for Public Works. The government also supported, albeit very reluctantly, a new independent study on the F-35’s cost. In short, two competent and independent investigations had re-set the debate and effectively dishonored senior defense officials. Those officials have not yet been forced to actually resign, but they are given little public credibility on the matter and a “motion of contempt” has been left pending in Parliament against at least one of them.
In the United States, we don’t punish officials for offering misleading statements; we promote them. In 2008, the Air Force’s manager for the F-35 program, Major General Charles R. Davis, asserted that the “flyaway” cost of its F-35As would be between $60 and $70 million by the time the purchase reached its fourth production lot and that it might even be less than that. Contemporary with Davis’ forecast, GAO had been writing reports warning Congress about optimistic estimates of F-35 cost and schedule. The GAO reports were roundly ignored by Congress and the Pentagon, as were other insiders and experts who spoke out publicly.
In 2012, real-time Department of Defense data for that fourth production batch shows a flyaway cost about double Davis’ prediction. For being wrong by a factor of at least two, Davis was given a promotion to lieutenant general and a new job: to oversee the entire Air Force acquisition budget — more than $40 billion annually.
Similarly, from 2009 to 2011 Ashton Carter served as the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, overseeing all Pentagon weapons purchases. He took special interest in the F-35 program and frequently reported to Congress. When he came to office, Carter was confronted with an analysis from a Joint Estimating Team (JET) predicting $11.6 billion in cost growth just over the next five years, and a year later a “JET II” analysis predicted even more cost growth and delays over the long term. Carter postured, saying he favored the JET reports, but he implemented only some of their recommendations — ignoring especially the long-term implications for cost growth. A subsequent GAO report made all that clear, and still — two years later — some, but not all, additional F-35 cost growth has been acknowledged by the Pentagon.
Despite Carter’s half measures and disingenuous embrace of the JET recommendations, senators praised him and unanimously confirmed his promotion to be deputy secretary of defense in 2011. Today, he is a prime candidate to replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta if President Obama wins re-election.
Because of their emphasis on oversight and accountability, there is a decent chance the Canadians will resolve their F-35 costs and ethics controversy. In the United States, though, even in a time of fiscal crisis and budget cuts, questionable programs and discredited officials blithely move on — the former with more money, the latter with more authority and status. If the Canadian opposition can both understand and confront the issues surrounding the F-35, why can’t we? We could but it will require a new set of actors in the currently mismanaged Pentagon and the self-obsessed Congress. It would be nice if we could expect something different.
Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, which recently moved to the Project on Government Oversight. For 31 years he worked on national security issues for U.S. senators from both political parties and for the Government Accountability Office.