Jet lag: Some hard questions about the F-35 purchase

Brian Stewart on the costly beast that may be Canada's new fighter jet.

How curious it is to see Canada's limited role in the Libyan operation being used to justify the proposed purchase of the super-expensive F-35 fighter jets.

I'd say the situation suggests exactly the reverse.

If anything, this UN-sponsored mission raises new questions about the wisdom of buying 65 of these Lockheed-Martin "Joint Strike Fighters," which are still in the test phase.

Particularly when the price tag ranges from a low of $14.7 billion (government estimate) to a stunning $29 billion (Parliamentary Budget Office prediction).

And when the Libya campaign drives home an awkward historical point — that Canada has never used more than a handful of jet fighters in foreign conflicts and there's no reason to suspect this will change in the coming decades.

Just consider the record of the past 66 years, right back to the end of the Second World War.

Here's the number of fighters we've committed to the five conflicts we've been in:

Korean War (1950-53), none. Gulf War (1991), 24. Kosovo (1999), 18. Afghanistan (2001-2011), none. Libya (2011), six.

Surely there's a message in such numbers. Throughout the jet age, Canada has acquired more than 1,100 fighters, out of which only 48 have seen service in our five hot conflicts.

Harm's way

This is not to make light of the highly professional work done by the Canada's air force nor to suggest it does not need high quality planes.

Two F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter, approach Edwards Air Force Base in California in March 2010. (Tom Reynolds/Lockheed Martin Corp./Reuters)
But the reality is that over six decades our federal governments have always been leery of sending many planes into combat zones and it has deployed them only to those situations where air superiority is already guaranteed by large numbers of U.S., British and, occasionally, French forces.

I can't see this changing, can you?

The lesson here is that we should not exaggerate how many future fighters are ever likely to be sent into harm's way over the 40-year lifespan of a new aircraft.

As for protecting our air space, well, no one has yet come up with a remotely compelling scenario of any aerial invader taking on our continental NORAD system, particularly now with the Cold War 20 years behind us.

Sure, no one can foresee what the future might bring. But in a time of budget stress, tough strategic choices have to be made.

That means the calculations must take into  account not only the worst-case scenarios that the air force always projects but also past experience. To do otherwise is to delude ourselves.

Some questions

So we should really be asking ourselves more hard questions. Like, just what will the F-35 missions be? How many fighters do we really need for training and deployment? As opposed to just want in order to look good in NATO?

And are there cheaper alternatives that can satisfy national security and foreign commitments?

We still have time to reconsider. There's some wriggle room in Canada's arrangement with Lockheed Martin and delays with early production may now push delivery of the F-35s back to 2018.

What's more, most NATO countries now appear to be cutting back on aircraft orders as well, so we'd be no exception.

In the meantime, shouldn't we be asking ourselves whether a more modest procurement might, for example, free up more funds for our undersized navy, which every year is called out on some international or humanitarian deployment?

The choice of the F-35 will almost certainly be an election issue if Canada goes to the polls shortly as expected.

The opposition parties are demanding a more open competition to select our next fighter, even as Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists the F-35 is "the only fighter available that serves the purpose that our air force needs."

Well, the prime minister may be right. But there are enough doubts out there, not just including cost, to warrant a serious rethink.

Jittery buyers

At this point, we wouldn't be the only country having second thoughts.

As a recent article in Aviation Week noted, other potential buyers are getting jittery, too:  "Customers for Lockheed-Martin's stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — among them Canada, Israel, Britain and Australia — are shifting their mood from anxiety to paranoia over increasingly unpredictable costs."

Co-pilot? Defence Minister Peter MacKay checks out the interior of an F-35 in Ottawa in July 2010. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

I remember covering Ottawa's decision in the early 1980s to buy our current F-18 fighters and what I find astonishing now is how much the public was shown then about the purchase plans and how little we know about the choices today.

Back then, all the different competitors went all out to show off their wares in Canada and particularly before Parliament.

Now the possible alternatives to the F-35 barely get a mention, and most of us may not know what they even look like, let alone cost. It's like being told to buy a new car after viewing only one model.

I'm not against the F-35 if it turns out to be the best plane for our needs. But how far superior is it to the Boeing F-18E Super Hornet, a larger and more advanced offshoot of our current fighter, and which the elite U.S. carrier pilots will use along with the F-35.

Is there a deal to be had for Europe's Typhoon "Eurofighter," which will fly for NATO alongside the F-35 (and which competes for sales)?

The government argues that only the F-35 is fifth generation or a "stealth" fighter while the others are merely 4.5, which means not there yet.

But the F-35 is only partially stealth and, anyway, it's not at all clear how critical the difference such an advantage would be given our usually limited overseas air role.

There's even debate now over the extent of the industrial benefits associated with the F-35 purchase. In fact the decision is so complex and so increasingly politicized at home and abroad that it's hard to know anything for certain.

This is perhaps the most compelling argument of all for considering a tough strategic review of our real air power needs while we still have time and before all the realistic options snap shut.