The F35 jet fighter debate
By Hugh Holland
November 14, 2012
Regarding the need and the development and acquisition process for the F-35 jet fighter program, it is puzzling that the Liberals are being so critical of a program and process that they themselves launched under Jean Chretien in 1997.
It was then the Trudeau Liberals started a process to identify Canada’s needs for the next generation of fighter aircraft. In 1980 they ordered 138, CF-18s, our current jet fighter. They were delivered over a three-year period between 1982 and 1985.
In 1993, the US Department of Defence launched a Joint Strike Fighter program — a development and acquisition program with the potential to replace the F-18 and six other existing fighter aircraft for the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and our other NATO allies. Sounds like a sensible idea with many benefits, such as economies of scale in engineering, manufacturing, and maintenance, as well as operational flexibility.
In the concept phase, the JSF program considered proposals from SAAB, Eurofighter, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and McDonnell Douglas. In 1996, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were selected to each produce two prototype demonstration aircraft. In 1997, the Chretien Liberals signed a Memorandum of Understanding to participate in the program in order to secure industrial opportunities for Canada. The oldest CF-18 will be 34-years-old when the first F-35 is delivered in 2016. How old is your car?
During 2001 test flights, the F-35 prototype proved to be superior to Boeing, and Lockheed Martin was awarded the contract for development. The F-35 is an aircraft with the latest radar and navigation equipment that can carry a variety of guns, missiles, and laser-guided bombs. It has a top speed of 1,935 KPH (1.6 times the speed of sound), a combat radius of 940 kilometers (vs 532 for the CF-18), an operating ceiling of 60,000 ft. (vs 50,000 ft. for the CF-18) and a ferrying range of 2,200 kilometers.
The Harper government was elected in 2006. They reviewed policy and equipment options, and to their credit they stayed with the F-35 program the Liberals started. To back out of the F-35 program after 10 years of work could mean the CF-18 fleet that had already dwindled to 107 operational aircraft would be 44 years old when a replacement is ready. Harper did not want to risk repeating the debacle in which Chretien paid $158 million to cancel Mulroney’s helicopter replacement program. That delayed the program for 12 years and left the Canadian Forces operating with huge maintenance and safety issues for helicopters that will be 50 years old when the first replacement finally arrives in 2014.
There has been some question as to whether the single-engine F-35 will be as safe as the twin-engine CF-18. Canada has used several single-engine fighters before, and the US Maintenance Reporting System shows that in the world’s largest fleet, the single engine F-16 has a better safety record than the F-18.
It has also been suggested that the F-35 may not be the best choice for the new “Canada First Defence Strategy” with increased focus on the arctic. We may need to supplement the fleet with some unmanned drones better suited to arctic and coastline surveillance. But we will still need some fighter aircraft, and we have already cut from 138 to 65. The US intends to buy 2,443 F-35s.
What did the acquisition process look like?
The development and acquisition process used for the F-35 was similar to the process used by the world-wide auto industry for critical systems and equipment:
- Identify the suppliers with the best track record of quality, cost, and delivery
- Invite them to submit proposals
- Select the best all-round initial proposal
- Work with that supplier through concept, development, testing, and production so that the customer and supplier are both contributing their best ideas for function, quality, and cost
- Also engage the best domestic sub-suppliers to provide their ideas and earn business
Like nuclear power projects, aerospace and military megaprojects are rare opportunities to put cutting-edge technology into practice for long-term benefit. Delays to sort out problems and resulting cost overruns are not uncommon, and are often the price to pay for advancing the state-of-the-art. According to Lockheed Martin, program delays have occurred for development of a variant for vertical take-off and landing to replace the British Harrier Jets, and a variant for landing on aircraft carriers.
The former head of the Canadian Air Force stated on the CBC’s Fifth Estate that some of the world’s best pilots were engaged in the initial evaluation, and the evaluation of working prototypes. The pilots, who fly today’s most up-to-date fighter jets, and may fly the next ones, should be the best to judge.
In 2010, the Harper government announced the intent to purchase 65, F-35 aircraft and training tools at a cost of $9 billion. The prime minister stated that if costs continue to climb, the final commitment in 2013 may be for fewer planes.
The opposition says the cost should also include an estimated $16 billion for 40 years of life-cycle operating and support costs (total $25 billion). But they are further confusing an inherently complex subject by playing political games with semantics. It would be more accurate to say that the life-cycle costs of the new F-35 should be compared to the life cycle costs of the alternative; which would be to continuing to operate a fleet of patched up aging CF-18s followed by some other new aircraft. Those costs should already be built into the operating budget. You buy a newer car because it is more reliable and more economical to operate than a 34 year old car.
Rather than wasting time and money squabbling over every military contract after the fact, it is clear that the government (including the opposition) and the auditor general need to define upfront an effective development, acquisition, and accounting process comparable to the best practice in industry. Since previous governments have not been able to do that, this government is trying to do it.
If my son or daughter or best friend were going to be flying one of those 1,900 KPH rockets loaded with bombs into a combat situation, I would trust the opinion of the world’s most up-to-date professional pilots and engineers over the second guessing of politicians, bureaucrats, and auditors. The professionals say the F-35 is the way to go.
Hugh Holland is a mechanical engineer and a retired auto-industry manufacturing executive. He retired to Huntsville in 1995 and is a member of the Rotary club.
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