In the face of a daily barrage of critical media reports on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the Canadian government has adamantly stood by its 2010 decision to purchase 65 of these aircraft for the Royal Canadian Air Force. But cracks in the edifice are starting to appear. In March 2012, Canada participated in two meetings of F-35 partner states to review the troubled program. In case this signals the government may be willing to pause before signing a contract, here are five reasons—arguably in ascending order of importance—why the purchase should be reconsidered.
The F-35 is a new, unproven aircraft that may fail to deliver its fifth-generation promises. The aircraft’s production performance to date has been heavily criticized by US military and other aerospace experts. Technical problems have plagued the Joint Strike Fighter program, with more likely to follow. As recently as November 2011 the Pentagon identified 13 aircraft design faults and analysis of the airframe exposed so many “hot spots” that the Pentagon’s head of the JSF program, Vice-Admiral David Venlet, described the potential cost burden to correct them as “what sucks the wind out of your lungs.”
It is an accepted norm of military procurement that major equipment deliveries regularly miss their original deadlines. However, the many revisions to the F-35 production schedule have become particularly problematic for Canada. Extensive program delays—totalling five years by March 2011—have added to the cost of the aircraft and raised doubts about the timely replacement of Canada’s existing fighter aircraft, the CF-18 Hornets.
The Harper government has loudly and repeatedly emphasized the economic benefits that will accrue to the Canadian aerospace industry from the global Joint Strike Fighter program. Government ministers have persistently claimed that Canadian industry will have access to contracts within a “global supply chain” worth up to $12 billion. But closer examination of the actual access Canadian companies will have to F-35 contracts suggest this figure is wildly inflated and Canadian industrial benefits from the program are likely to be much more modest.
The cost of the Canadian acquisition and maintenance of 65 F-35 aircraft has been the subject of much debate with a widening gap between government cost projections and virtually all other estimates. Lockheed Martin initially claimed affordability as a core attribute of the F-35, but this claim was dropped as program experience demonstrated otherwise. In March 2011, the Parliamentary Budget Office estimated Canada’s “average unit acquisition cost” at US $148.5 million, twice the government figure. Government estimates for “lifecycle costs,” the costs of maintaining and upgrading the aircraft over its lifespan, are also challenged by many informed sources. Against government figures of $7 billion over twenty years, the PBO calculated an “ongoing sustainment cost” of US $19.6 billion for a 30-year operational period.
The chronology of Canadian government decisions on the F-35 suggests that the government announced the purchase before it defined the purpose of the new fighter aircraft. The F-35 debate has raised important questions about F-35 capabilities in Canada’s north and in the protection of Canadian air space. Project Ploughshares noted in remarks to the House of Commons Defence Committee that the response to the major domestic security threats identified in the Canada First Defence Strategy would not require, or even benefit from, deployment of stealth-enabled combat aircraft.
The technical problems, production delays, unsecured industrial benefits, and cost overruns of the F-35 have generated widespread doubts in Canada about the value and viability of the stealth aircraft program. At root is a fundamental question about whether the F-35 is suited to Canada’s security needs. Meanwhile, the program problems and delays represent not only a troublesome challenge to the procurement plans of Canadian and other JSF partners but also the time and the occasion for the Canadian government to redefine its CF-18 replacement program.
_Kenneth Epps is senior program officer with Project Ploughshares. This report is derived from Ploughshares Briefing 12-1, available at http://www.ploughshares.ca._