Calgary Herald

Everyone cool your jets and let’s put the F-35 debate in perspectiv­e


The auditor general’s report on the F-35 aside, no one knows what Canada will pay for the Joint Strike Fighter, and they won’t until a final price is negotiated. So, in the inimitable words of Aislin, “O.K. Everybody take a Valium!”

Price estimates now range from $75 million to $162 million per aircraft. The nine partners in the JSF project are currently pressing the manufactur­er (and the U.S. government, as program coordinato­r) to get costs down. The odds are, they will.

Things such as which tranche you buy in at, how many aircraft you buy, over what time frame, and where your currency is vis-a-vis the U.S. dollar at the time of signing, all will affect the prices each country pays — just as with every other similar program. Indeed, these factors can have a huge impact on final pricing. As things stand now, the Canadian military still reckons the per-aircraft cost, as the U.S. Congress was told last week, is about $85 million and that the federal government still can purchase F-35s under the $9-billion ceiling the Harper government unnecessar­ily announced two years ago and boxed itself into for good last week.

Still, the overriding question remains: Does or doesn’t Canada need a replacemen­t for the CF-18S and if so, what performanc­e should that replacemen­t aircraft be capable of?

Unfortunat­ely, sometimes ridiculous­ly exaggerati­ng what the AG had to say, politician­s and other critics conflate these two, using the bureaucrac­y’s and the government’s handling of the procuremen­t to question the need for the fifth generation F-35 itself.

Let’s live in the real world. Unless Canada decides drasticall­y to change its defence strategy and becomes pacifist and isolationi­st, we will continue, as we have done for a century, to commit ourselves to military alliances and partnershi­ps to further our national interests. To be worthy allies and partners we have to be more than peacekeepe­rs uttering platitudes — the bulwark of the Liberal defence strategy for years.

As with the entire F-35 debate, the auditor general’s report is being discussed with no external context. The competence and integrity of the folks at the Defence Department aside, what about the eight other partner countries in the program, and the Japanese, who have ordered 42 F-35s? Why are a bunch of Europeans signed up to a U.S. program when the EU nations already produces several newish fighter jets of their own. Are they all idiots, too?

The multinatio­nal JSF program follows on that of the F-16, another U.S. warplane chosen by many European countries about 30 years ago. As with the F-35, the F-16 had some initial teething problems but it was ultimately successful. This may explain why the F-35 European partner nations have shown far more patience with the F-35’s hurdles than Canadian critics have.

As for Canada not having a competitiv­e bidding process before deciding on the F-35, neither did its JSF partners except the United States, which chose Lockheed Mar- tin’s X-35 over Boeing’s X-32. The Japanese, not partners, did hold a competitio­n and concluded the JSF was better than Boeing’s Super Hornet and the Eurofighte­r consortium’s Typhoon.

There is no competitio­n to be had if you want stealth and a networked capability because there are no other western aircraft being produced now that have this. It is THAT simple. The justificat­ion the U.S., Japan and most of their western European allies have accepted is that China and Russia are rushing to catch up with fifth-generation warplanes of their own. Looking out 20 or 30 years, it is hardly a stretch to see how the Chinese or Russians might one day pose a military threat to Canada or Canadian interests.

The only reason for Canada to have a competitio­n to replace its CF-18’S is if it decides — in advance — that the stealthy fifth-generation aspects of the F-35 are not important. If they aren’t, then the F-35 is going to lose any competitio­n, because aside from these potentiall­y revolution­ary capabiliti­es, it isn’t that much different from the fourth-generation aircraft out there and of course, it costs more.

Much has been made of the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force purchasing a relatively small number of additional, less expensive fourth-generation Super Hornets, with suggestion­s that Canada should follow their lead. This misreprese­nts those Super Hornet purchases. Those additional aircraft buys are intended to fill an operationa­l gap due to F-35 production delays, not to replace them.

As for the fourth-generation alternativ­es to the F-35, several have had troubled histories. Sweden’s Grippen, for ex- ample, had two very public and embarrassi­ng prototype crashes. Nowhere near as advanced as the F-35, reams of its software code needed to be rewritten, delaying the program and boosting costs. France’s Rafale was long delayed, over budget, and it has little success in export sales despite years of expensive promotion. Eurofighte­r’s Typhoon has experience­d enormous problems, delays and cost overruns and has failed to attract buyers outside its builders’ group. The only one that has had any real sales success has been the Super Hornet, and most of its recent sales have been as bridge aircraft to the F-35.

Why have so few Super Hornets been sold? There are many reasons, but one that stands out is that they are not in the same league as the F-35. The prospect of the JSF’S arrival has helped keep other aircraft from selling well, as has the prospect of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighters now under developmen­t.

Something else forgotten is that Canada spent several billion dollars to purchase C-17 heavy-lift transport aircraft and rebuilt CH-47 medium-lift helicopter­s for the Afghan mission without a tendering process. At the time, some critics demanded that Canada consider Airbus’s A-400M heavy-lift transport, then at the design stage. Well, the A-400M still has not entered service. The RCAF would still be waiting for it if it had been the winner of a competitiv­e process.

Alas, almost none of this has shown up in either the government’s case for the F-35 or in the broader debate surroundin­g it.

 ?? Herald Archive, Reuters ?? The F-35 is a fifth-generation fighter jet with state-of-the-art stealth and network capabiliti­es. Canada will require both to further its national interests and to be a worthy ally in military alliances. The final cost for the jets is still unknown.
Herald Archive, Reuters The F-35 is a fifth-generation fighter jet with state-of-the-art stealth and network capabiliti­es. Canada will require both to further its national interests and to be a worthy ally in military alliances. The final cost for the jets is still unknown.
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