The F-35 fighter jet is proving more dangerous to the governments committed to buying them than to any potential enemy they may ever face in the skies.
Wednesday, Canadians learned that the purchase of 65 of these aircraft – the number announced by the Harper government in 2010 – will cost in the order of $46-billion over the 42 year projected life cycle of the aircraft. If Ottawa still goes ahead with the purchase it will be the most expensive military procurement in Canadian history.
But Canada's ongoing F-35 drama is but the tip of the F-35 iceberg. The United States still plans to purchase 2,443 of the aircraft at a total cost (purchase and operations) of well over a trillion dollars. But virtually all of the nations that have signed on to the F-35 consortium are seriously questioning their commitment to the jet. And there is furious debate and much unhappiness in Washington over the F-35's costs and production delays.
Why did it happen?
There is nothing new about the desire to have the best weapon possible. It is at least as old as war itself. From the moment when someone first lashed a stone to a stick to create a war club, someone else tried to make a better one. Inevitably, they succeeded and the cycle to out-arm the competition began.
Yet, when the F-35 was first conceived, there was (and is) no real "enemy" out there that it could possibly be used against. State to state conventional war among major powers – the only kind which can afford jets like these – is simply inconceivable today. So when the U.S. military was asked to dream up its requirements for a "fifth" generation fighter, it simply decided to have everything it could for any possibility that might arise. It was to be the flying version of the deluxe Swiss Army Knife.
That is why the F-35 is still not a fighter plane; it is a development project. When it was conceived back in the 1990s the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps wanted an aircraft with capabilities that didn't even exist yet. Some of the original requirements for the aircraft have still not been perfected fully 11 years after the U.S. contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin. There are F-35s flying with the US Air Force in various states of development, but not a single aircraft meets the performance specifications originally laid out.
Canada and other nations that joined the F-35 consortium (Canada first committed itself in 2002), believed that the technical barriers to the F-35's projected capabilities would be overcome at reasonable cost and that developing the aircraft together, as it were, would lead to substantial savings and lucrative production contracts distributed among the consortium nations. That belief was clearly wrong.
There is no point for Canadians to ask why the aircraft Ottawa apparently committed to buy in 2010 is turning out to be much more expensive, and taking far longer to develop, than first projected. The answers to those questions can only be found south of the border where defence contracts have long had a way of ballooning way out of control.
The questions for Canadians is: Why did Canada simply take the U.S. Defense Department's word that the plane would do all it was supposed to do at the cost that was then quoted? (Canadians ought also to remember that although the Tories announced the purchase of the aircraft in 2010, it was the Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin Liberals which made the first two down payments on the jet.)
The answer is that the procurement system in Canada is badly broken and has been for two decades at least. To begin with, there is no transparency in the process. The system is opaque from top to bottom. So, whether it's ship-board helicopters, armoured fighting vehicles, or even trucks, no one but an omniscient procurement genius can ever know quite what's going on with any project at any given moment.
To make matters worse, Canadians in general simply don't care enough about defence to learn why the procurement process is such a mess and to demand that it be fixed. Yes, the F-35 is a fiasco, but the new fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft that was promised more than a decade ago and is still probably another half decade away from delivery is no less a fiasco, though potentially a much cheaper one. And where are the headlines about that?
David Bercuson is a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.