By Ivan Ho
Will the F-35 Lightning II cost the Canadian tax-payers USD 29.3 billion or USD 14.7 billion for 65 aircraft? The controversy remains between the PBO and the DND.
The F-35 is designed for the U.S. air force to meet their needs and goals. Its main function is a “day one stealth” bomber. Experts contend that Canada does not require the aircraft.
During the 2011 Canadian federal election, there was an intense focus on Conservative party Prime Minister Stephan Harper’s decision to purchase 65 new F-35 Lightning II fighter planes. The story around the F-35 is filled with controversy over the cost and appropriateness of the aircraft. Both the Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP) promised to halt the purchase of the aircraft and re-examine its suitability in relation to the military’s budget.[i] The F-35 contract is a key cornerstone of the Conservatives’ plan to revitalize the Canadian armed forces. One of the crucial issues has been the disagreement over the already high price of the F-35, as the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) and the Department of National Defense (DND) calculated two different figures. The PBO estimated the total cost of the F-35 is USD 29.3 billion or USD 148 million per unit, while the DND assessed the total program would cost USD 14.7 billion or USD 75 million per unit. The discrepancy between the two departments is attributed to the fact that both the DND and the Conservative Party are committed to increasing the size of the armed forces and replacing Canada’s current aircraft with the F-35. On the other hand, the PBO is an independent organization that provides analysis to the Senate and House of Commons “on the state of the nation’s finances.”[ii] In this fashion, the Conservatives lacked the ability to provide transparency by not disclosing the actual cost of the F-35 and giving a lower estimate to the public. This begs the question: Is the glamour of the F-35 worth the expense? Its critics say that Canada has no need for this incredibly expensive and versatile 5th generation aircraft in their arsenal. The F-35 is unsuitable for Canadian military operations and marks an unfortunate shift in Canadian foreign policy towards single-mindedly backing the U.S. military.
F-35: A Technological Marvel
Military analysts acknowledge that the F-35 represents the next generation in technological advances in avionics and stealth fighter capability. It is an amazing piece of engineering technology filled with the newest avionics system and advanced computerized equipment. In fact, the F-35 is estimated to contain “approximately 5.7 million lines of code, more than double that of the F-22A Raptor.”[iii] Both the F-35 Lightning II and F-22A Raptor are the world’s only 5th generation aircraft.[iv] This showcases the fact that the F-35’s computer system is incredibly complex and in-depth. The defense industry has labeled the F-35 as the “fifth generation,” which Lockheed Martin defines as incorporating “advanced stealth, fighter agility, integrated information and sensor fusion, and a new level of reliability, maintainability and deployability.”[v] Military planners argue that the F-35 is the future, and the Canadian military sees it as an important asset, as it plans to gradually replace its fleet of CF-18s in the next decade. Canada has already invested USD 160 million in development, and, according to the Defense Industry Daily, Canada plans to contribute an additional USD 500 million over the next forty years.[vi] In emphasizing the key role that the F-35 will play in defending Canadian sovereignty, the Conservative Prime Minister Harper has announced that the F-35 “is the only fighter available that serves the purposes that [Canada’s] air force needs.”[vii] Supporters also argue, although that purchasing fourth generation aircraft to replace the CF-18 would be cheaper, the technology is already obsolete.[viii]
What is the Real Cost of the F-35 to Canadian Taxpayers?
The Tory government has been accused of intentionally misguiding the public in order to gain popular approval for the purchase of the F-35. As previously mentioned, two departments came up with vastly different numbers. The PBO estimated the F-35, including maintenance and upgrades, would cost USD 148 million per unit, while the DND has estimated USD 75 million per unit. Yet the Conservatives did not specify if the price tag set was the fly-away cost, which is the factory production cost of the F-35, or the average procurement cost, which includes research and development, documentation, training, support systems, and spare parts.[ix] According to Alan Williams, an experienced federal employee in the business of defense procurement, the USD 75 million is the “unit recurring fly-away cost.”[x] Other countries and independent studies indicate that the F-35 will cost twice what the DND estimated it would be. According to the Rideau Institute, a Canadian institute that provides independent research, advocacy, and consultation, the higher estimate published by the PBO was peer-reviewed by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and Queen’s University.[xi] Several purchasing reports from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries also provide evidence that the PBO’s higher estimate is more accurate. For instance, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report indicating that the average cost of the F-35 climbed from USD 69 million to 133 million, while the Israeli government cemented a deal with Lockheed to buy 19 F-35A’s at the cost of USD 121.7 million per unit.[xii] Countries planning to purchase the F-35 are rethinking alternative and cheaper options. The Dutch parliament is now planning to cancel their deal with Lockheed Martin, after finding out that the F-35 is going to cost USD 120 million.[xiii]
Beyond deliberately misleading the public about the estimated cost of the F-35 and the taxpayer burden, the Conservative government provided incomplete information regarding the purchase and the contract process. The Conservative government awarded the contract to Lockheed Martin without partaking in any competitive bidding process, which infuriated other companies like Boeing and Eurofighter. These companies criticized the lack of an “open and transparent” competition; the uncompetitive bidding process may have further driven up the costs in purchasing the F-35s.[xiv]
Additionally, the F-35 contract is Canada’s most expensive military purchase.[xv] Buying the F-35s was a financially risky decision because of Ottawa’s small military budget and USD 48.5 billion government deficit.[xvi] In contrast to the U.S., which plans to spend USD 1 trillion on the purchase and maintenance of 2,456 aircraft over the next forty years, the F-35 purchase would overwhelm Canada’s military budget of USD 19.2 billion.[xvii] The high costs associated with the F-35 purchase make it an important financial decision that could gravely affect future Canadian citizens. Not only should Canadians scrutinize the costs, but they should also examine the reasons for purchasing the F-35. Such an important, multi-billion dollar program must be soberly justified by the Canadian government to the nation.
Does Canada Need the F-35 for Its Current and Future Military Operational Needs?
Although the F-35 is a remarkable aircraft, it is unsuitable for the Canadian military. According to Steven Staples from the Rideau Institute, the current CF-18 fulfills two important roles of the Canadian Forces: surveillance and control of the Arctic, along with expeditionary operations including “air-to-air combat, precision guided munitions/bomb delivery, and close air support of the ground.”[xviii] The traditional Cold War concept of Arctic sovereignty applies to defending Canadian airspace against Russian bombers. Yet, supporters of the F-35 still maintain that this threat is real and that Canada needs the F-35 to protect Canadian and American airspace. Defense Minister Peter MacKay highlighted the Russian threat in 2010, when he praised two CF-18s for intercepting the two Russian TU-95 long range bombers on the edge of Canadian air space. However, critics like defense and foreign affairs analyst Eric Margolis, said that this incident was routine and that “it’s nothing to get excited about, [because] there’s much less to this than meets the eye.”[xix] In addition, Staples points out that if Russia were to go to war with the United States, “air defense would be irrelevant in any case, since the primary delivery vehicle would be intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.”[xx] The fear that Russia would launch an aerial attack on North America is an outdated notion with its roots in the Cold War mindset. Even if this were to occur, the 65 F-35s that Canada plans to purchase are entirely inadequate in patrolling the grand expanse of the Canadian tundra. A research analyst from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives observes that, “Canada is located in a very benign region of the world facing essentially no military threat to its own territory.”[xxi] Therefore, the highly acclaimed stealth abilities and air-air combat interdiction of the F-35 are entirely inapplicable when it comes to Arctic sovereignty. Furthermore, Canada is not in any danger from other countries, as some proponents of the purchase may argue.
The second potential role that the F-35 would play is supporting NATO operations, such as the counter-insurgency (COIN) operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the stealth capabilities and advanced avionics of the F-35 are suited for a different catalogue of operations. According to Dr. Carlo Kopp from Air Power Australia, the best performing aircraft in past COIN operations were the A-10 Thunderbolt II, F-15E Strike Eagle, B-52H Stratofortress and B-1B Lancer, all of which are “simple, rugged, easy to deploy and support from remote sites, and capable of delivering good firepower and endurance with a robust sensor payload.”[xxii] Unlike the previous aircraft, the F-35 lacks the payload capacity and required endurance to deliver sufficient ordinance for Close Air Support (CAS) missions.[xxiii] Therefore, the F-35 is unsuitable for performing a number of roles that the Canadian Forces require.
The Conservative government endorsed the F-35 purchase in order to support future U.S. aerial operations. The F-35 is capable of daylight bombing on enemy air defense systems, an ability NATO’s operations frequently requires. For instance, the capacity to stealthily bomb targets was imperative in the Libya campaign, and has likewise become crucial to all aerial operations. As the PBO reports,
“…the [F-35] was to reflect key lessons derived from the 1991 Gulf War. Stealth was seen as immensely valuable in the first day of the war; however, after the first day’s operations, the Iraqi integrated air defense system never recovered, and Pentagon planners believed that stealth would be less vital as any campaign continued. All this led to a ‘day-one stealth’ concept, where the aircraft would carry a restricted internal load at the start of the campaign but then switch to non-stealthy operations with a larger load of external weapons afterward in order to deal with bigger target sets.”[xxiv]
The F-35 was built to penetrate and neutralize air defense on the first day of bombardment, after which the military would switch to a strategy that relied less on stealth. The day-one stealth concept was a strategy where the F-35 performed the initial attack on an enemy air defense system. However, while these operations were very important for U.S. missions, Canada has no need for an initial strike capacity on enemy air defenses. The F-35 was built to fulfill a niche role in the American military to conduct first-strike capability, “for which there is no requirement for Canadian participation” in NATO operations.[xxv] Because the F-35 is inadequate in conducting COIN operations and patrolling the Arctic, one has to conclude that the Conservatives are shifting to an interventionist foreign policy similar to the U.S.
Canada’s foreign policy should not be tied closely to that of the U.S., especially when conducting Canadian military operations. The goals and orientations of these two militaries are completely different. The F-35’s fundamental role is a day-one stealth bomber used to penetrate enemy air defense, which later secures air cover and provides the opportunity to bomb important military targets. Therefore, the F-35 purchase suggests that the Conservative government is willing to conduct further NATO operations in bombing or suppression of air defense. However, Canada lacks the capacity to follow through with this type of invasion or large-scale operation. The Canadian government should have instead used its resources to invest in areas that would benefit Canada overseas, such as the land forces. Steven Staples points out, “as the second largest country in the world, a significant portion of [Canada’s] military spending should be dedicated to disaster relief, search-and-rescue, and constabulary patrols along [Canada’s] three coasts. [Canada’s] potential military contribution to expeditionary missions will be neither necessary nor sufficient for the success of operations involving significant use of force.”[xxvi]
With the current budget deficit and Canada’s historical role in peacekeeping missions, the Canadian Forces should focus on missions sanctioned by the United Nations. Canada could make a greater contribution to UN missions by having the Canadian Forces specialize in general use capabilities.[xxvii] General specialization will allow Canada to offer greater support for humanitarian missions – an option that investing in concepts such as “first-strike capabilities” renders impossible. However, even though these UN missions are very important, Canada has dramatically reduced its contributions to UN operations since 1997, partly because of the NATO-led mission in Bosnia. By 2005, Canada committed only 83 military personnel to UN peacekeeping missions, in comparison 500 Canadian soldiers participated in stabilizing Haiti from 1993 to 1996.[xxviii],[xxix] Once again, Staples recognizes that Canada stopped operating strategic bombers after the end of the Second World War, and retired the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonadventure forty years ago.[xxx] Until recently, previous administrations reoriented the Canadian Forces to conduct smaller peace-keeping operations. Its critics say that the F-35 purchase marks a grave mistake by the Conservatives, as Canada does not need the F-35 in any shape or capacity in its inventory. Instead, Canada’s scarce resources should be invested in existing sectors of their armed forces.
References for this article can be found here.