The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2010 Volume 31 Issue 3
In mid-July the Canadian government announced that it would purchase 65 F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter aircraft from US military contractor Lockheed Martin, at an estimated cost of $9-billion (DND 2010). Media reports suggested that the support costs – the costs of maintaining the aircraft over its lifespan – would be an additional $7-billion (Collins 2010). The $16-billion total expenditure would make the F-35 order the largest military procurement program in Canadian history, even before a likely rise in program costs.
Interoperability and affordability
Since 2002 Canada has been part of an international program, led by the US, to produce the F-35 as a new-generation stealth “Joint Strike Fighter” (JSF) aircraft for the US Air Force and Navy. Pentagon orders are currently projected to total almost 2,500 aircraft. The program’s international partners, mostly, like Canada, members of NATO that have invested money in aircraft development and production, are expected to purchase hundreds more over the next decade or so.
Despite the cost and complexity of the JSF program, the Canadian government has not made a convincing case for the F-35 order. It has provided little detail of the missions the aircraft is expected to fulfill. Critics, meanwhile, have noted the roles for which the F-35 would not be suited – for example, the “close air support” of Canadian troops in counter-insurgency operations as in Afghanistan or in peacekeeping and other peace-support operations undertaken elsewhere (Johnson 2010; Collins 2010).
Even so, the Department of National Defence (DND 2010) has consistently praised the aircraft, lauding in particular its interoperability and affordability. Interoperability – by which is meant commonality – would be assumed if Canada purchases F-35 aircraft along with the US and other allies. The Canadian Air Force then would be well placed to fulfill the role that the Pentagon sees as particularly suited to allied F-35 aircraft: to ensure “that coalition forces are able to tackle heavily defended targets alongside U.S. forces” (JSF.mil 2010).
F-35 affordability, on the other hand, is a complete fiction. By US government agency estimates (Butler 2010), the current projected final aircraft cost has virtually doubled (in real terms) since the beginning of the program and US legislators are concerned that the cost will continue to rise. Based on US and other partner government projections, lifecycle costs of Canadian F-35s also may be much greater than the reported estimate (Williams 2010), such that the final program total could exceed $30-billion – almost twice the current estimated figure.
The affordability argument has been tied to the economic benefits that Canada’s military industry is expected to gain from the Canadian purchase and participation in the global JSF program. Yet government claims that “Canada has already seen a two-to-one return on its investment” (DND 2010) in the F-35 are exaggerated, since only a small portion of the value of Lockheed Martin contracts awarded to Canadian companies has returned to Ottawa as tax revenue or repayment fees.
Additionally, there are at least two significant risks that would deny the expected Canadian industrial benefits from the international JSF program. The first is a shrinking JSF market, as projected global sales numbers fall in response to the rising costs of the aircraft. At a time when government spending is falling across Europe, program partners are balking at the aircraft costs and planned purchases may be cut.
The second risk is that the comparative program success enjoyed by Canadian industry to date will not be sustained. Despite the access to the US military market provided by the Canada-US Defence Production Sharing Agreement, as more program partners demand a share of F-35 subcontracts, competition with Canadian industry will grow. Both risks suggest that the rationale for an F-35 purchase should not hinge on anticipated industrial benefits.
During a period of tighter Canadian government spending, this unprecedented F-35 expenditure would also have profound opportunity costs. Money spent on stealth fighter aircraft would not be available for other federal programs or, arguably, more urgent security needs. Because Canadian security preparedness involves much more than military capacity, a comprehensive approach to international peace and security requires attention to the 5 Ds that jointly respond to security threats – development, democracy, disarmament, diplomacy, and defence. Currently government security spending is heavily weighted toward the defence component. The F-35 acquisition – especially if combined with cuts to non-military programs – would tip the scales even further.
According to media reports, the July announcement of the F-35 order is not binding. The government has at least three years before it must sign a contract for aircraft delivery (Pugliese 2010). Parliamentarians should make use of this period to complete a thorough and public review of the case for acquisition of new fighter aircraft. The review should begin with the basics:What are the security missions that the stealth fighter aircraft will fulfill? Are there alternative programs that would better meet Canadian and international security needs?
The size of the F-35 procurement program and the nature of the aircraft will impact Canadian security spending and policy for decades to come. Failing the immediate retraction of the announced purchase, a final procurement decision should await the completion of a public parliamentary process that convincingly demonstrates the case for the purchase of the F-35 or any other jet fighter.
Project Ploughshares’ John Siebert and Kenneth Epps appeared as witnesses during the September 15 session of the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence, which considered the “Next Generation of Fighter Aircraft.” During the session the Committee agreed to schedule further hearings on the JSF.
Butler, Amy. 2010. Carter confirms JSF unit price nearly doubled. Aviation Week, March 12.
Collins, Mark. 2010. Smoke and fighters. National Post, July 20.
Department of National Defence. 2010. Canada’s next generation fighter capability – The Joint Strike Fighter F-35 Lightning II. Canada News Centre, July 16, 2010.
Johnson, Leonard V. 2010. Canada’s need for a first-rate fighter has long been exaggerated – the F-35s aren’t worth it. Ottawa Citizen, July 23.
Pugliese, David. 2010. $16B fighter jets purchase up in the air. Montreal Gazette, July 26.
Williams, Alan. 2010. Open competition needed for Canada’s new fighter aircraft procurement says former senior procurement official. Defence Watch, July 27.