The Perils of Not Choosing the F-35
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 1)

In the debate over the F-35 Lightning II as Canada’s next fighter aircraft, public attention has been mainly focused on financial aspects of the procurement. Few have examined the fall-out on the public’s confidence in the ability of the armed forces to reach a fair and objective conclusion on the tools they require to carry out their duties.

Perpetual Sticker Shock?
In December 2012, the accounting firm KPMG released a report estimating that the purchase price of the F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft, combined with four decades of operations and maintenance, will cost approximately $40-billion. Leaving aside a generous margin for error (as no one knows the price of jet fuel or spare parts 10 or 20 years hence), or that no fighter aircraft can reasonably be expected to remain in service after 30 years, this is still serious money. If the cost of all procurement projects are to be publicized in this manner, Canadians are in for perpetual sticker shock. The realization that all costs will be amortized over four decades will be of little comfort.

Still, the report seems to have persuaded the Harper government to seriously contemplate opening up the fighter jet procurement to competition. CBC News noted that the original Statement of Requirement (SOR) would be set aside and that a panel of independent observers would be formed to oversee the evaluation process. Whether the panel has the expertise to do so is beside the point. Without access to classified data on the threat environment or alternative aircraft (which the manufacturers will be reluctant to release without a full, transparent competition), it can accomplish little of value. It will take no heat off the government either, which has sheepishly admitted failure on this file.

Escaping culpability is the senior military leadership and, in particular, the Royal Canadian Air Force. In pitching an option without regard to due process or cost transparency, both have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to reach a fair, rational decision on their own capability needs. A repeat of the EH-101 fiasco which saw the politically-charged collapse of an expensive air force helicopter program – one which remains unresolved 20 years later – looks to be in the offing.

What might the panel find? Amid recriminations voiced by various F-35 detractors, it is clear that insufficient attention has been devoted to the benefits and drawbacks of acquiring an alternative aircraft. In their zeal to discover who in the government knew what and when, many F-35 skeptics seem to have passed up the opportunity to explore whether the country will be well-served by another choice. (The same might be said of the air force, no doubt.) This is a serious matter because, even if the F-35 is not chosen, it is far from clear if the Canadian taxpayer will see significant savings.
Are the Alternatives Viable?
There are four potential candidates to replace the CF-18. Let’s take a look.

Problems with the Eurofighter Typhoon start in the factory. It is not built according to a cost-effective business model, but according to political criteria (i.e. how many airframes each country buys determines how much of the workshare they receive). This pushes up the fly-away costs which today far exceed $100-million per unit (without logistics). The Royal Air Force (RAF) has reportedly been shocked by how substantially more expensive it is to operate on a per-hour basis than the aircraft it is replacing. Like the F-35, the Typhoon is marketed as a multi-role fighter, but its users (Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy) have not yet invested the development funds required to allow the aircraft to reach its full, marketed potential. It is viewed as a formidable dog-fighter but not as a fully operational ground-attack system, yet. (In Libya, RAF Tornados had to accompany the Typhoons into action because the latter did not have the ability to aim the precision-guided bombs they were carrying.) Should Canada express interest in the multi-role ‘Tranche 3’ version, expect the price to increase in proportion to capability (such as the addition of a much-needed electronically-scanned radar).   
The Dassault Rafale is also pricey – not least because of its advanced technology and limited production run. The French Senate has determined that the per unit cost to the state is €150 million (about $195-million), albeit with basic logistics. The French might be inclined to sell at just above cost in order to secure a first sale of the type to a NATO ally, but the manufacturer may seek to make up the difference in after-sales support. And since the plane is designed to carry only French weapons, the RCAF would have to jettison its incompatible US-pattern ordnance, adding to the overall project costs. The conspicuous lack of a helmet-mounted cueing system would also have to be addressed.

For its part, the Swedish JAS-39 C/D Gripen does not represent a major capability enhancement over the current CF-18, although it is the least expensive to operate. The Gripen may yet evolve into a more capable E/F model, but this is by no means certain. The notional E/F has been offered to Switzerland at just over US$150-million per copy (including logistics) but failure to consummate the deal would effectively halt development. Rather ominously, the Swedes have announced that the enhanced aircraft would be combat-viable only until 2042. Assuming a Canadian order for the year 2020, the design could be obsolete after only two decades’ service.

This leaves the F-18 E/F Block II Super Hornet – often touted as a ‘no-brainer’ alternative based on its similarity to the CF-18. (In truth, Boeing markets it as a completely new aircraft.) But two things should give its boosters pause. First, just because the RCAF articulated a requirement for 65 F-35s does not mean that an equivalent number of ostensibly cheaper Super Hornets (or Typhoons, Rafales or Gripens) is required. In 1980 the Trudeau government’s choice for the New Fighter Aircraft program came down to 138 F-18s or 142 F-16s. Thus, choosing a different option does not necessarily mean that the same capability will derive from the same number of airframes. The selection process – if it is modified to allow other bids – will have to take this into account.

With regard to capability, some have legitimate doubts about the viability of the F-18E/F over the long term. On the one hand, it represents the proverbial ‘bird in the hand’. It boasts a good electronics suite and carries a wide variety of ordnance. It is in active service, has been combat-proven, and its price tag and operating/maintenance costs are well-known. This is all good – especially when Canada is facing a period of budgetary austerity.

On the other hand, the plane has been in service since 1999 and is based on an aerodynamic design that dates back to the late-1970s. Crucially, it has neither the stealthy characteristics of current American and pending Russian and Chinese designs, nor the super-manœuverability of the modern, canard-winged European designs. (One study done in Australia posited that the RAAF’s Super Hornets would not be able to best the newest versions of the Sukhoi SU-30-series in a dogfight.) In short, the Super Hornet may be ‘good enough’ for now, but the design has reached its limit; any improvements would be decidedly incremental and may start falling behind the technology curve by the middle of the next decade – precisely when it would be expected to achieve full operational capability with RCAF. If Canada expects its choice of aircraft to be leading-edge for 30-40 years after it is bought, it might have to look elsewhere.

The Numbers Game
Looking elsewhere will not necessarily result in significant savings. The currently specified number of airframes (65) is dubious given that Canada can barely fulfill its NORAD and expeditionary obligations with the 78 CF-18s currently in service. Since fighter aircraft are routinely lost in peacetime accidents, 65 planes are unlikely to be sufficient over a 30- or 40-year period. A revised SOR could call for a more realistic fighter strength – say, 80 aircraft. How surprised will the anti-F-35 crowd be when the price tag for 80 Super Hornets comes in at roughly the same as for 65 F-35s? Granted, a competition might yield a lower overall cost, but the danger of a politicized competition rears its ugly head here. If the SOR is re-written to exclude the F-35 (much like the maritime helicopter SOR was re-written to exclude the EH-101) critics will suspect that politics has trumped operational imperatives, and that Canada is selecting not only the cheapest aircraft, but the least capable (and possibly in insufficient quantity).

If parliamentarians are holding the government’s feet to the fire because they want to restore integrity to the defence procurement process, that is to their credit. In trying to push through the F-35 without sufficient safeguards or a thorough examination of alternatives, the federal government and the RCAF have arguably acted precipitately and to the detriment of public confidence. But if the critics are gripped by an ‘anything-but-the-F-35’ mindset, they may be disappointed to find that the available alternatives aren’t nearly as attractive as they thought. The cost of replacing one generation of high-tech gear with another leaves little room for bargains.

James Fryer is a defence analyst.
© FrontLine Defence 2013