Still soaring over budget but behind schedule and plagued by gremlins, the stealthy, deep-strike F-35 warplane coveted by Canadian fighter jocks has managed to rack up a couple of important wins in overseas sales.
Whether those help its murky prospects in Canada is hard to known. In Canada, big-ticket weapons buys often drag on for decades. Still, Lockheed Martin's F-35 successes in South Korea and the Netherlands offer some insights and a cautionary tale about the world's most expensive warplane program.
South Korea, still in a front-line war, technically with the ruthless, nuclear-armed and wildly unpredictable North Korean regime, has all but opted for the F-35, overturning an earlier decision that picked Boeing's cheaper and less sophisticated, but battle-proven, F-15.
South Korea's defence ministry made it abundantly clear why the F-35 was back and will now win what amounts to a one-plane flyoff.
"We need a capability to counter North Korea's asymmetric threats of nuclear weapons and missiles," the ministry said, adding, "we need to catch up with the latest trend of aerospace technology worldwide centered around the fifth-generation fighter jets."
Given South Korea's testy relations with Japan and the rise of China as not just a regional military power but one bent on superpower status, the decision to buy up to 60 of the versatile but massively expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighters makes sense on military, political and geo-strategic grounds.
"South Korea faces two divergent strategic requirements," said Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of analysis at the Teal Group, a defence and aerospace firm near Washington, D.C. "The first is the nutjob regime, … the second is the long-term threat of being in a dangerous neighbourhood with lots of technologically advanced regional rivals."
As for Canada, "strategically it is diametrically the opposite of South Korea," Mr. Aboulafia said in an interview. So the decision for Ottawa is whether it wants to buy a fighter-bomber that affords Canada the "capability to be part of a war-fighting coalition."
The Netherlands also recently confirmed it will buy the stealthy, deep-strike fighter.
But that buy exemplifies the severe constraints the F-35's soaring costs can impose.
The Netherlands will spend roughly $6-billion (U.S.) to buy just 37 of the fifth-generation warplanes; less than half of the 85 it originally wanted to replace an aging fleet of more than 150 F-16s. Another $370-million (or $10-million per aircraft) will be needed annually for maintenance and operation plus an extra 10 per cent for further price increases.
While the Netherlands is far smaller than Canada it has long played a similar military role. Like Canada, the Netherlands is in NATO, was a major UN peacekeeper during and after the Cold War, joined the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, took on a tough southern province there and left after years of costly and inclusive counter-insurgency effort. Unlike Canada, which opted not to deploy warplanes to support its ground troops in Afghanistan, the Netherlands sent its F-16s.
Today, the two mid-sized NATO allies face no air threat and haven't for decades engaged in strike operations in heavily-defended airspace – the kind of bombing mission the versatile F-35s are designed to deliver along with air defence and ground support.
For the Netherlands, which already has two early-model F-35s flying, the decision caps a decade of wavering. The first of the remaining 37 planes won't arrive for six more years.
"Opting for a modest number of the best aircraft attests to a sense of reality," the Dutch defence ministry said in announcing its decision. It will end up with three dozen warplanes to defend a nation considerably smaller than Nova Scotia.
Should soaring costs similarly drive down the numbers of aircraft that can be purchased in Canada, the air force might wind up with far less than the 65 stealthy F-35s originally planned. Even that number was way down from the 138 F-18s purchased in the 1970s, roughly half of which are still in operation.
Even as Canada's warplane selection process sputters along, bigger decisions made elsewhere could have a huge impact.
While the South Korean and Dutch buys were votes of international confidence in the F-35, the program remains the biggest arms buy in U.S. history and thus a tempting target for budget cutters.
So far the Pentagon (and Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35s) has managed to protect the huge project which has suppliers and provides jobs in almost every state. Still, the purchase of 2,443 warplanes, in three versions ranging from a vertical take-off jet for the Marines to a naval version for aircraft carriers and the conventional type for the Air Force, may not survive intact. And cutbacks in the overall U.S. numbers will drive the per-plane cost up, especially for foreign buyers seeking to put their own, domestically-produced kit into the airframe.
And while the Pentagon claims it finally has costs and build quality under control and is making progress on other issues like the sophisticated helmet intended to integrate man and machine, plenty of powerful critics aren't convinced.
"The F-35 is now the first $1-trillion weapon system in history – a consistent series of cost overruns that have made it worse than a disgrace," said Senator John McCain, a naval aviator who spent years in a North Vietnamese prison camp and remains a hawk both in terms of protecting U.S. power and fighting Pentagon bloat.
Paul Koring reports from Washington, D.C.