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F-35: Four fallacies that skew public discussion

Following is a repeat posting of an article which first appeared in The Vimy Report on November 6, 2015 under the title “F-35: Slow down and think about it”.   

In its election platform, the Liberal Party declared its intention “not to buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber” and to “immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 (with) one of the many, lower-priced options that better match Canada’s defence needs”. Before it acts on the position it has staked out, it would serve the interests of the new government — and Canada — not to move too quickly on the matter. Hasty decisions based on lousy analysis seldom end well for those involved.

The F-35 program was poorly handled by the Conservative government, as was much else in defence procurement, and provided great political sport for those intent on killing the purchase regardless of the merits. They were aided and abetted by an indolent media which never bothered to explore the matter in any depth, and by various auditor reports which focused solely on costs and made arbitrary judgements about those costs.

The Liberal Party position reflects four assumptions about the F-35 program which have become conventional wisdom over time. They were never true and are not now. One of these is that the F-35 is a plane with gizmos Canada doesn’t need. Another is that it was chosen surreptitiously without a competition. A third is that the costs of the plane are so “out of control” Canada can’t afford it. And lastly, there are less expensive alternatives. Herewith a brief examination of each.

A plane Canada doesn’t need

The Liberal Party platform states that “The primary mission of Canada’s fighter aircraft should remain the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability”. There is a muddle-headedness to this statement which suggests it was written in a public relations office not by any Liberal Party defence analyst.

Historically, governments of all political persuasions have recognized that Canada’s air force must be capable of supporting two missions. One is the defence of Canada and North America, the other is participation in international peace operations under NATO, UN or other auspices. Unless Canada is to purchase two types of high-performance aircraft, the type of plane chosen must therefore have both air supremacy and ground attack capabilities. It must also be the latest generation of aircraft available, given its performance requirements and the expectation it will be in service for 20 or more years before being replaced. Such was the CF-18 and so, today, is the F-35 — the only new generation fighter being manufactured anywhere outside of Russia and China. Every other aircraft currently being manufactured, capable as it might be, is quickly becoming obsolete.

The new fifth-generation of fighters has several distinguishing characteristics, notably superb manuverability and avionics. But the most important feature is low-observability or “stealth”. This is not just a nice-to-have feature; it is essential to the aircraft’s ability to survive and prevail in an engagement with older generation planes and with the fifth-generation planes of potential adversaries. For the Canadian air force to have any other type of fighter would mean sending pilots into an environment where the enemy would see them first — and could destroy them without the Canadians ever knowing they were even in the vicinity.  In short, the F-35 is a plane Canada cannot afford not to have.

The absence of a competition

The Liberal Party platform’s reference to the need for “an open and transparent competition” suggests there wasn’t one to select the replacement for the CF-18. In fact, there were three competitions held.

The first competition took place in the mid-1990s. Three different airframes were proposed by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and McDonnell Douglas (teamed with Northrop Grumman and British Aerospace) for a multi-purpose aircraft called the Joint Strike Fighter, which the US Department of Defense wanted developed to replace several varieties of aircraft including F-18s flown by the US Air Force and the Marine Corps.  In the words of the US Congressional Research Service, it was a competition that was “closely watched”. “Given the size of the JSF program and the expectation that the JSF might be the last fighter program that the DOD would initiate for many years, DOD’s decision on the JSF program was expected to shape the future of both US tactical aviation and the US tactical aircraft industrial base”. What’s notable about this process is that all the major US (and UK) manufacturers of high performance aircraft were involved, i.e. all the manufacturers Canada would consider for a replacement for the CF-18. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL30563.pdf

On November 16, 1996, the US Department of Defense announced that Boeing and Lockheed Martin had been chosen to compete in the Concept Demonstration Phase. McDonnell Douglas was eliminated in the initial airframe design phase of the competition reportedly because of the complexity of its proposed design. Canada wasn’t involved in this initial step to develop the JSF but it was in all the steps that followed, investing first US$10 million in the Concept Demonstration Phase, then US$150 million in the System Development and Demonstration Phase, and finally US$550 million in the Production, Sustainment and Follow-on Development Phase.

In the second competition, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were awarded contracts and funding to build and test-fly two aircraft each to demonstrate their competing concepts for the three planned JSF variants: conventional take-off and landing (CTOL), short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL), and carrier-variant (CV). Test flights of Boeing’s X-32 and Lockheed Martin’s X-35 prototypes took place in 2000 and 2001.

The Boeing X-32 (left) and the Lockheed Martin X-35 (right)

The Boeing X-32 (left) and the Lockheed Martin X-35 (right)

In October 2001, the Department of Defense selected Lockheed Martin’s X-35 as the winner of the Concept Demonstration Phase. DOD announced that both competitors had met or exceeded the performance objectives established for the aircraft, but “on the basis of strengths, weaknesses and degrees of risk” the Lockheed Martin team was “the clear winner … on a best-value basis”. Pratt and Whitney, builder of the engines for the F-22, was selected to build the engines for the F-35.

The third competition was a strictly Canadian assessment conducted in 2006. The much quoted, and misquoted, report of the Auditor General found that DND had been “diligent” in developing the F-35 to replace the CF-18, but not “diligent” in choosing the F-35 to replace the CF-18. Ignoring DND’s almost two decades of work on a replacement for the CF-18 and the decisions of both Liberal and Conservative governments to invest US$710 million in the F-35, the AG somehow found fault with DND for not first assuring itself “that the F-35 was a suitable, if not preferable, aircraft before further committing Canada and Canadian industry to the JSF program” (Para 2.36).  In the next paragraph, however, the AG noted that DND had in fact conducted an assessment of the operational requirements for an aircraft to replace the CF-18, had reviewed five options including the F-35, had stated a strong preference for the F-35, and had summarized its conclusions in a June 2006 Operational Requirements Concept Document.

Costs out of control

There is no avoiding the fact that modern high performance fighters are expensive. In the case of the F-35, however, opponents settled on a strategy of trying to price the plane out of contention. DND, they claimed, had been hiding the “true costs” which were astronomical. Worse, they were still rising, in fact “out of control”. No way could Canada afford something like that. Incuriously, the media never looked into why 12 other countries (besides the United States) found the F-35 sufficiently affordable to order 674 of them (so far). Australia, for example, whose fleet of F-18s is practically the same size as Canada’s, has booked 72.

In levelling the charge that DND had low-balled the cost of the plane, critics never challenged DND’s estimate of the cost of acquiring the plane itself. Where they made their stand was on the argument that DND had not accounted for the “complete lifecycle costs” of operating the new fleet (it had). As the inquisition assumed momentum, the hunt for “hidden costs” eventually added to the bill such items as the cost of existing air bases, the salaries of pilots and maintenance staff, fuel consumed and replenished, resupplies for munitions used, and replacement of aircraft lost in combat or accidents. Worse still, DND had only estimated lifecycle costs over 20 years — the usual planning timeframe. In the view of the PBO, it should be 30 years. Treasury Board thought it should be 36, KPMG 42. Little wonder the public was led to conclude the new plane was just too expensive.

In support of their case, critics also cited US data about cost overruns in development and production of the F-35. As in any high-tech engineering venture, the early cost estimates incorporated guesswork which proved to be erroneous. But in 2010, DOD commissioned an independent baseline review of the program and set cost targets which have largely been met. In January 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that two of the F-35 variants, the Air Force version and the Navy’s carrier-based version, were proceeding satisfactorily, but that changes would be made in the testing and production of the Marine Corps version which was placed “on probation”. Canada is buying the Air Force version, but it was the Marine Corps version which made the headlines here.  The Joint Strike Fighter Program Office has since reported that the unit price of a plane has dropped by 57 percent since the first production aircraft was purchased and that it continues to decline.

A lower-priced option

Given the (false) alarms that have been raised over the “spiralling” cost of the F-35, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether there may be lower-priced options available for Canada. The answer, regrettably, is that there are no other options for performing the required missions — either more or less pricy.  On the other hand, the cost issue is nowhere near as severe as some would make it out to be, as a dispassionate analysis of the cost of managing any modern air force and the steady decline in the purchase price of the F-35 make clear.

As it happens, Canadians shouldn’t expect to be able to save money by buying a fourth-generation replacement for the CF-18 — itself a fourth-generation aircraft. If the replacement were to be the Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet often mentioned, the cost could be greater not less than that of the F-35. As defence analyst Richard Shimooka has pointed out, the stated price of the Super Hornet excludes equipment costs and other charges which Canada would have to absorb and it would rise as Boeing’s rate of production of the Super Hornet declines (the company has announced production will cease altogether in 2017).  Shimooka estimates the Super Hornet’s true cost would be between $75 million and $85 million, while the flyaway cost of F-35s delivered in or after 2020 — when the bulk of Canadian purchases are currently scheduled to happen — would be approximately $77 million.  http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/richard-shimooka-the-f-35-is-still-our-best-bet

Finally, let us recall that two Canadian governments have already made three payments totalling $710 million to develop the F-35.

The feature image is of Australia’s first F-35A Lightning II