Lockheed Martin, the giant U.S. defence contractor, is launching a cross-Canada publicity blitz to convince Canadians to buy its F-35 stealth fighter jet — but it's simultaneously raising the price by a hefty $20 million US a plane.
Steve O'Bryan, Lockheed's vice-president for the F-35 program, said just 18 months ago that Canada would pay $65 million per plane. Now, O'Bryan tells CBC News the price is $85 million.
It may not be the best time to mention that. The U.S. budget axe is hovering over the whole F-35 program and the Canadian government insists that it's no longer committed to buying the jet at all.
Still, Lockheed Martin is fighting on, sending its executives and a working F-35 flight simulator to wow Canadians with the capabilities of its brand-new, high-tech stealth fighter. The simulator will be on show in Toronto today, and in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa in the weeks ahead.
Lockheed Martin is also sending a Canadian combat veteran into the battle: Billie Flynn.
Cue the Darth Vader helmet
Flynn is something of a star among stars — a veteran test pilot who can fly anything. He's married to Canadian astronaut Julie Payette. He served 23 years in the air force, flew combat missions in Kosovo, and has piloted 70 different aircraft — everything from Canada's CF-18 to the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Now, Flynn is working for Lockheed Martin, and he says the F-35 is by far the best plane for Canada's needs — whether to support NATO missions like Kosovo or Libya, or to patrol the Arctic — all under the veil of stealth.
And, Flynn is quick to mention, the F-35 has the Darth Vader helmet.
The helmet really is something out of science fiction, yet it's integral to the F-35 — not just a head-up display but an on-your-head display. It's had a host of development problems, but is supposed to make the pilot all-seeing, providing 360-degree vision. Projected onto the visor before the pilot's eyes are images from the ground, from other planes, from top-secret sensors and from six cameras embedded in the skin of the fighter.
Flynn flips down the sunshade with a flourish and declares, "This is to keep the glare off me and make it look like Darth Vader." But what lies beneath gives him an all-seeing view from horizon to horizon — heat sources included.
"You see absolutely everything and it works!"
At this price, it had better. Estimates for the helmet range up to $2 million each; Flynn says it's less than $1 million. But never mind; it's just one costly part of the costliest weapons program in human history: the F-35 stealth fighter, with a total cost of $400 billion.
Pull up! Pull up!
Billed as the fighter of the future, the F-35 is famously over budget and behind schedule. Its critics predict what is known as a "death spiral" — high prices mean fewer orders, fewer orders mean higher prices … and so on to an embarrassing end.
"It's going to survive in the short term; it's not going to survive in the long term," says Winslow Wheeler, a Washington defence expert who spent 10 years at the General Accounting Office, keeping an eye on the budget.
'This airplane — despite what the air force says, or Lockheed Martin or Canadian generals — this aircraft will come close to costing a quarter of a billion dollars apiece.' —Washington defence analyst Pierre Sprey
Another Washington defence analyst, former Pentagon official Pierre Sprey, says the real cost will be far higher than advertised.
"This airplane — despite what the air force says, or Lockheed Martin or Canadian generals — this aircraft will come close to costing a quarter of a billion dollars apiece," says Sprey.
"My prediction is they'll kill the program after 500 airplanes."
Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin's chief rival, Boeing, is offering to sell Canada a fleet of F-18 Super Hornets for half the price of the F-35.
So it was just a matter of time before Lockheed Martin launched its counter-strike. Call Billie Flynn!
'Stealth is not an accessory'
Flynn swoops into the fray fully loaded. For him, the price isn't really the issue. Spread over the 40-year lifespan of the fleet, he says, the F-35's cost will be roughly the same as its rivals.
Rather, the issue for him is whether Canada wants to send pilots to war with second-rate equipment. Having flown his share of Arctic-sovereignty missions in Canada's North, Flynn doesn't think much of them. Canada's CF-18s, he says, allowed only a "token presence." They couldn't see far or stay for long. The F-35, he says, has greater range and lets pilots see much more — covertly, too.
"With the immense amount of fuel — with 18,500 pounds of gas inside this jet — it has range and persistence better than any other jet," Flynn says.
"So I go further, I stay longer and with the sensors I see vast distances."
'You come with the A game, or you don't come at all'
As for stealth, Flynn has no time for critics who say it's a high-priced frill.
"Stealth is not an accessory," he says. "It is an absolute basic that you have to have … to go to war in this day and age. If you don't have it, you won't be allowed to play."
Even if it's just a surveillance mission, Flynn maintains that stealth makes a difference, because modern ship-borne radars can see planes at huge distances.
"When we talk about surveillance over the Arctic, stealth comes directly into play … you will not be able to fly at 25,000 feet, as I did in Kosovo, and live in some sort of sanctuary. They can reach out and touch you."
Kosovo, Flynn says, is not the future of warfare. Nowadays, "you cannot send an aircraft into bad-guy land unless he is stealthy or protected by stealth, because he will die."
Stabbing a finger in the air, Flynn adds, "We don't go to war because we have a 51-to-49 chance. We go to war when the odds are overwhelmingly in our favour. There's no-one in Canada — I'm certain — that wants to send our children into war with something that is 'good enough.' You come with the A game, or you don't come at all."
Whether Lockheed Martin's pitch will work remains to be seen. It probably won't help to start out with a price hike of $20 million per plane. But don't count Lockheed Martin out. The company has proved adept at what Pierre Sprey calls "political engineering." He notes that work on the F-35 has been spread around 46 states. Which congressman wants to vote against that much pork? And Canada's share of F-35 work is already at the $450-million mark. Will Canadians feel confident that Boeing will share as much?
So it's not over, just because the Harper government has "hit the reset button," as it often says, on the fighter contract. The Maple Leaf still flies outside Lockheed Martin headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. Lockheed Martin's Steve O'Bryan calls Canada a "partner in good standing" in the program. Canada's still listed in the company literature as "under contract" to buy the plane.
Lockheed Martin didn't get to be the world's largest defence contractor by backing down from a fight.