Retired general Paul Manson is a former fighter pilot and chief of the defence staff. He was the director of the evaluation that led to the selection of the CF-18 Hornet in 1977-80, and chairman of Lockheed Martin for 12 months in 1996-97.
The F-35 is back in the news. Two years ago, the Conservative government, in the face of relentless political controversy over its plan to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 Hornet fighters with the F-35, turned the matter over to an interdepartmental team for detailed examination. The National Fighter Procurement Secretariat’s analysis, conducted with independent third-party oversight, is now working its way forward to the cabinet for decision.
The government’s “reset” afforded relief from attacks by political opponents and others whose motives ranged from genuine concern about cost increases, to competing commercial interests, to anti-defence sentiments. By turning the question over to a team of experts for detailed and unbiased analysis, the government should now be in a better position to make a decision – and explain it.
The review will surely have paid close attention to one factor that was almost ignored in the original public debate, namely the strategic future in which Canada’s next-generation fighter must operate. It’s an almost impossible question to answer, because history is full of surprises. Few foresaw the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union. The 9/11 attacks came as a total surprise. The West failed to see that in short order, it would find itself immersed in strange new conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and now, suddenly, Ukraine. Predicting the place, time and nature of modern human conflict is a mug’s game.
This presents a huge challenge to military planners. How can the right equipment be selected? The only logical recourse for military staffs, in writing the “Statement of Operational Requirements,” is to favour more capable multirole systems as a hedge against uncertainty. Single-purpose and less-capable equipment is risky.
These considerations undoubtedly influenced Canada’s decision to join the F-35 program in 1997. In operational terms, the aircraft is a full generation ahead of the other available contenders and, because it is brand new, it has the best prospect of meeting strategic demands into the middle of the century. This is certainly why the F-35 has been chosen by the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy, Turkey, Israel, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
So why did the Canadian program go off the rails so badly? The aircraft’s vulnerability to criticism on cost projections and technical problems. Both stem directly from the fact that the F-35 is very new.
In the development of any new fighter, unit costs are high as the first planes are basically hand-built. That’s perfectly normal, but high early production costs can be exploited in a way that makes long-term cost appear high. Now, with well over 100 F-35s having been produced, with 15,000 flying hours accumulated and with more than 230 planes already contracted, unit costs are declining markedly, a process that will continue until full-scale production is under way.
On the technical side, F-35 opponents missed no opportunity to imply that the development problems were severe. Because the aircraft embraces extremely advanced technology, its systems presented a much greater challenge than has traditionally been the case. But excellent progress is being made in resolving these. Here again, the secretariat’s report should dispel much of the public’s concern.
An interesting question remains in the Canadian context: Should there be a formal competition?
On the surface, this seems to be the way to go, but it presents some problems. Given the F-35’s acknowledged superiority in operational performance, it’s hard to imagine that a fair and realistic evaluation could come to any other conclusion. A less capable competitor, even if cheaper, would impose serious strategic risks and could be construed as a waste of taxpayer dollars. It has even been advocated by some that the Statement of Operational Requirements be watered down so as to allow other contenders to appear competitive. For reasons that should be obvious, this would be unethical. Perhaps the most telling argument against a formal competitive phase is that it would significantly delay a decision, necessitating expensive modifications to keep the aging Hornets flying.
Given these realities, with the outcome being rationally predictable, it is doubtful that the government could conduct a formal commercial competition in good faith.
Finally, beyond the military dimension, selection of the F-35 would give Canadian industry a continuing infusion of high-tech work in the form of industrial benefits. As a participant in the Joint Strike Fighter program, Canada has already realized more than $600 million in F-35-related contracts, with more than 110 Canadian companies participating. With 3,000 F-35s to be produced, Canadian selection of the jet would keep the door open for massive additional industrial benefits for Canadian companies.
So what is going to happen? It depends very much on the conclusions of the interdepartmental secretariat. These will be big news, because of their implications for national sovereignty, security and defence through 2050 and beyond. Regardless of which aircraft is chosen, the cost will be high. Canadians deserve a decision that serves their interests and is convincingly explained by the government.
Not to be disregarded is the impact the selection will have on Canada’s international image as a contributor to collective security. In an era when future strategic challenges are unpredictable, we surely need to take the high road.