Monday, February 13, 2012

Is Canada Finally Getting Ready to Think About A Plan B For the F-35?

By David Pugliese

Defence Watch

After months, if not a year, of insisting that there were no issues with the F-35, are Canadian defence officials finally starting to consider the need for a Plan B on the procurement?

As reported in Postmedia, Canada is to convene a meeting with seven other international partners as the countries rethink their own orders for the stealthy new fighter jet.

Other nations have already been sounding the alarm in light of F-35 delays, reports about increasing costs, and U.S. plans to alter its delivery timetable. They have been reviewing the numbers of aircraft they will purchase and looking at putting in place plans to mitigate the problems. This has been going on in some countries for months.

In January, Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino said in a statement the Canadian government is still committed to the F-35 program, but that he had ordered Defence Department officials in Ottawa to investigate what implications the Pentagon’s decision would have on Canada.

But before, and after, that statement was issued, Fantino as well as DND officials have been adamant that the F-35 project and Canada’s procurement has – and will be – smooth sailing. There are no delays, they have said. They are no cost increases, they have claimed. The plane is not only amazing but performs flawlessly. Fantino and MacKay have also suggested that those who raise questions about the $14 billion to $30 billion (depending on what numbers are used) purchase are against “the troops.”

The Postmedia report noted: Lockheed Martin Corp., the Pentagon’s No. 1 supplier, and U.S. officials who run the $382-billion US weapons program are anxiously preparing for a meeting in Australia in mid-March where the partners – Canada, Britain, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Australia, Turkey and the Netherlands – will outline their revamped procurement plans. But Canada has tentatively scheduled a meeting of the partners at its embassy in Washington before the Australian meeting to get an update on the program and better coordinate their approach. Canada’s plan to purchase up to 65 of the jets is based on a very specific timetable, and a slower ramp-up in production could force a tough decision between paying more per plane or extending the life of the country’s CF-18s.”

As Fantino and Defence Minister Peter MacKay has stated countless times, the Conservative government has planned to have Canada receive its F-35s in a staggered delivery between 2016 and 2023, when they are in “peak production”’ to ensure the best price. At the same time, Canada’s fleet of CF-18s is due to retire by 2020.

Lockheed has said that U.S. plans to slow down production will hamper its efforts to lower the cost of the plane.

Postmedia and Reuters have reported on the state of play in other F35 countries. Here is a brief rundown:

Britain, the biggest contributor to the joint development program, said in a 2010 defense review that it would cut its planned order of 138 F-35 fighter jets and decided to pull out of the short-takeoff variant completely. Last week, a U.K. official said the government would not decide until 2015 how many F-35s it will buy.

Turkey has already halved its initial order of four planes and Australia is rethinking when to buy the next 12 of its initial order of 14, given the U.S. delays.

Italy, the only other buyer of the short-takeoff version of the F-35, has hinted at possible “significant” reductions in its overall buy of 131 planes, with Italian media reports citing a cut of 30 planes.

Norway’s parliament approved the purchase of four F-35 training jets last summer and is slated to decide this year on plans to buy up to 52 more planes.

Dutch Defense Minister Hans Hillen visited Lockheed’s mile-long F-35 factory in Fort Worth, Texas last month, telling Radio Netherlands after the visit that a stream of negative reports about the program was causing him political headaches at home.

“The price, the rumours about technical shortcomings. Are they true, and if they are not: why is it that they keep doing the rounds?” he said. The Netherlands plan to buy 85 F-35s in total, but has put off a final decision until a new cabinet takes office, which may not happen until 2015.

So back to Canada’s plans. If there is a Plan B and a deviation of the original plan it will be a major reversal for DND and Canadian Forces officials, as well as for MacKay. For years they have so vehemently insisted that there were no issues with the aircraft, its cost or delivery timetable.

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