Friday, May 27, 2011

What happens to Canada if the U.S. scraps the F-35?

The Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter-bomber was supposed to serve as the backbone of the U.S. Air Force while bringing affordable radar-evading stealth technology to medium-sized U.S. allies including Australia, the Netherlands and Canada. Now senior Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee are openly musing about scrapping the most expensive defence program in history. The F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), is 13 to 30 months late meeting revised deadlines. The price per unit has doubled. Last week the Pentagon issued what Senator John McCain called a “jaw-dropping” estimate of US$1-trillion to keep a future 2,400-plane U.S. fleet of F-35s flying for five decades. Canada has been counting on the F-35 to defend its airspace. ThePost’s Adam McDowell looks at what is at stake if this option is taken away:
The Pentagon’s US$1-trillion maintenance estimate spooked Washington, much as Ottawa shuddered in March when Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page released an admittedly sketchy figure of $29-billion for Canada to acquire and maintain the F-35. That was nearly double what the governing Conservatives had forecast. Meanwhile, the Pentagon figure just reflects maintenance costs and does not include the price of buying the planes, which has spiralled skyward to US$382-billion. “Acquiring these jets was supposed to cost a total of US$233-billion,” Mr. McCain grumbled. The new projections also come at a time when the Pentagon is facing pressure to curtail costs. U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates has put “on probation” the problematic version of the F-35 that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter (a version Canada has no plans to buy); it has two years to prove itself or be cancelled. Finally, the White House warned Tuesday it will veto any defence spending bill that includes an alternative engine program for the F-35.
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin believes the Pentagon estimate is wrong, but has not offered an alternate figure. “We believe we can beat that by a fairly substantial amount,” said Tom Burbage, executive vice president of Lockheed.

“The facts regarding this program are truly troubling,” John McCain, the ranking Republican member, told a May 19 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Originally, the JSF program was supposed to deliver an affordable, highly common, fifth-generation aircraft that, by leveraging proven technologies, could be acquired … in large numbers. And the program was supposed to, first, deliver operational aircraft to the services back in 2008. [But] when the services will get their JSFs with real combat capability is anyone’s guess.” Scolding Lockheed for doing an “abysmal job” of containing costs, the senator issued a (possibly empty) threat: “It seems to me we have to start at least considering alternatives.”
If the F-35 is scrapped, Canada could end up buying more expensive aircraft that are less capable and will become obsolete faster. The country’s CF-18 fighter-bombers need to be replaced. The Department of National Defence has identified the F-35 as the only suitable aircraft for the job. So many NATO members and allies expect to buy the JSF that there are few alternatives on the market — essentially the Swedish Gripen, the French Rafale and the American Super Hornet. “They’re capable aircraft, but they’re a step behind the F-35,” said retired Lieutenant-General Angus Watt, formerly head of the Canadian Air Force. “The F-35 is designed to take us into 2040s, 2050s. The designs of the 1970s, 1980s, probably won’t cut it then.” Canada cannot buy the stealth F-22 Raptor, the most advanced plane in the world, because of its cost, specialization and above all the fact that the U.S. Congress has banned foreign sales. Drones, meanwhile, are still immature, accident-prone technology. Could Canada go without fighters altogether? The Conservatives would remind Canadians that our Air Force is presently using its CF-18s to pound Libya’s Gaddafi regime with laser-guided bombs. And what will warn Russian bombers not to creep into Canadian airspace? Not having fighters, Lt.-Gen. Watt said, would be like a town trying to do without a fire department.
Canada can back away from the F-35 if the program goes terribly wrong. “We’re in good shape, actually, because we haven’t signed a purchase contract,” Lt.-Gen. Watt said. “Everybody’s worried running around in Canada but … we haven’t committed to actually purchasing the airplane. When we do, we’ll know the cost at the time.” If the F-35 is cancelled outright, Canada may be saved from buying a lemon, said Stephen Staples, head of an Ottawa-based military affairs think tank. “The problem is the plane was designed by committee and it operates like it was designed by committee. It tries to do a lot of things, and doesn’t do them very well,” said Mr. Staples, president of the Rideau Institute.
National Post, with files from news services

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