Brian Stewart: Rethink the F-35s? Let's rethink the entire process

Some shambles can have a silver lining, Brian Stewart writes. The exposed weaknesses in the proposed F-35 purchase now give us the time to rethink the entire military procurement process and how many fighter jets Canada really needs.

At this point in the confused and mismanaged F-35 affair it's worth reminding ourselves that there are some shambles that can be turned into an advantage.

In this case, there is much to learn from exposing the gross weaknesses — and possible dishonesty — in the vague military/bureaucratic/cabinet procurement process while we still have the luxury of time to reform the system and reconsider the entire $30-billion buy.

While the political parties battle, quite properly, to find out who knew what when, they might also want to take note of how grossly ill-informed and weak in basic research Canadian MPs are when it comes to the oversight of public spending.

It's hard to imagine U.S., British or Australian legislators being so badly out of the loop given their far superior research resources and more demanding committee systems.

Certainly the fallout from this matter should underline the need to further strengthen the watchdog powers of the Parliamentary Budget Office and the Auditor General, the two organizations that have done the best job at unravelling the mysteries of this affair.

As for reviewing the F-35 decision, we have the comforting luxury of time. As the prime minister now makes haste to argue, we "haven't bought" a plane yet.

In fact, because our current fleet of F-18 fighters is in good shape, though aging, we have two or three years in which to debate what kind of replacement aircraft, and in what numbers, we really need to match our long-term strategic need.

A decision as late at 2015 could see first replacements for the F-18s begin around 2019.

That span, if carefully managed, would allow us to hold the open and fair competition that many people now demand — one with performance requirements that are not "fixed" in favour of one manufacturer as the sole-sourced F-35 seemingly was.

Our friendly skies

Taking a breath and restarting the process would also give us time to call for and digest the many industrial offsets that other manufacturers and airplane consortiums would undoubtedly be willing to make to win a lucrative Canadian contract.

Enmeshed in controversy. Aerospace workers at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Tx, work on an early version of the F-35 fighter jet Canada is thinking of buying. (Canadian Press)

We really don't seem very sure at the moment what might benefit Canada most in the long term and looking at all the options on the table might help pin that down.

Most importantly, a pause would allow us to really assess our strategic defence requirements and consider whether we really need up to 65 hugely expensive attack planes.

As I've noted here before, throughout the entire jet age, Canada has acquired more than 1,100 fighters, out of which only 48 have seen active service in our five hot conflicts.

The numbers are worth repeating: Korean War (1950-53), none. Gulf War (1991), 24. Kosovo (1999), 18. Afghanistan (2001-2011), none. Libya (2011), six.

The reality is that in over six decades the Canadian government, whatever its stripe, has been leery of sending planes into active combat zones.

For the most part, it has only deployed them in modest numbers in situations where air superiority is already guaranteed by large numbers of U.S., British and, sometimes, French forces.

Given the history, it is a safe bet that such caution will continue.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine Canadian planes stealthily swooping in as lead attacker in some foreign conflict. That's the role Western allies gratefully cede to U.S. aircraft and, increasingly, to their cruise missiles and pilotless drones.

In U.S.-dominated missions, such as Libya where we sent a mere half-dozen fighters, just "showing the flag" usually counts more than numbers.

What plausible threat?

So even if a future strategy supposes that Canada will occasionally send a dozen attack aircraft abroad to play a support role in an expeditionary war, we have to ask if we really need up to 65 aircraft, which are worth a total of around $30-billion to acquire, operate and maintain over their lifetime.

The argument here is that we want that many so that we could keep at least 50 at the ready inside our own NORAD-guarded continent.

But perhaps half that number would do instead, given how hard it is to come up with a plausible large-scale air challenge over Canada.

Strong backers of the F-35 now whisper that what we really need is the technical advantage to counter a Chinese or Russia air threat at some point over the next 30 years or so.

But if that is a plausible threat then perhaps someone deep inside defence headquarters should set that out for our generally baffled MPs.

Opposition MPs are not alone in questioning this plane. When the influential Foreign Policy magazine recently polled leading U.S. military and security experts to name which big defence system to scrap in a belt-tightened future, the F-35 was the hands-down favourite for the chop.

"We have had only one fighter shot down by an enemy fighter jet in 40 years," argued John Arquilla, a senior defence analyst at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. "We simply don't need to spend over a trillion dollars on a new fighter at this point."

As for Canada, whatever our air role in the future is to be, a fresh competition would allow us to fully assess how the Boeing F-18 Super Hornet, the F-15 Silent Eagle or any of the European competitors stacks up against Canadian needs.

What money might be saved? What new offset contracts would open up? At the moment we just don't know and the carefully managed official "spin" and secrecy in this whole process is eroding confidence in the way we equip our military forces.

Play our cards right

Could we, for example, use a mixed fleet of fewer F-35s for foreign operations and some F-18s for domestic defence? Or would that be even more expensive? Let's find out.

Another issue is whether, for pilot safety, we should be looking for a twin-engine aircraft (the F-35 has only one) to patrol our environmentally hostile Arctic.

Steve Fuhr, a former fighter pilot and CF-18 fleet manager, has argued that the single-engine F-35 is the completely wrong choice for Canada for this reason, as well as for its cost.

Any strategic review also has to ask whether this amount of money for a still somewhat limited purpose airplane can be justified, given the other needs of the Canadian military over the next several decades.

Should the rebuilding of our aged and undersized navy take precedence, given the fact it may well face increased deployment to the Pacific in the future along with the constant need to respond to international and humanitarian crises?

In fairness, the F-35 may well end up to be an excellent plane, even if it turns out to be somewhat less of the wonder-craft that its boosters once bragged of.

An open Canadian competition may still choose it, albeit in fewer numbers I think it's safe to predict.

But even if that is the case, Canada will lose little, if anything, by letting the aviation world knows that we're going to be as cautious as everyone else about such a controversial buy.

We're not even likely to lose our early place in the production line should we delay but ultimately opt for the F-35, as Lockheed Martin will need to court us rather than play hardball, and early production in any case is being pushed back to 2018.

So, if we play our hand right, this embarrassing moment for the government can give us more parliamentary transparency, defence procurement changes, a much needed national defence strategy review, and, hopefully, just the right aircraft, all at the same time.

Not a bad deal if we pull it off.