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The F-35 Stealth Fighters: Government Perfidity Can't Match Its Stupidity

Toronto Star - May 1, 2012

By Colin Kenny

Stealth fighter jets are supposed to be elusive. But nothing is more elusive these days than the truth about Canada’s relationship to the F-35 fighter jet.

The message Canadians are hearing is that Canada is committed to purchasing a large number of F-35s to replace its aging fleet of CF-18s, and that the Harper government has lied about the overall cost – which many pundits suggest is likely to be ridiculously high.

There are smidgeons of truth here: the government has come forth with understated cost estimates that would be misleading even if it were possible to reliably predict costs. The italicized part of the previous sentence is even more important than the part about deceptive cost estimates.

Yes, it is lamentable that the government decided to lowball its estimate. But that was just the kind of crafty sleight-of-hand spinning that governments are used to getting away with.

In this case the public was told that 65 aircraft would cost $16 billion. Unfortunately, internal estimates predicted it would be $25 billion when maintenance and operating costs were included. Dragged into the sunlight, Harper’s spin-masters were properly denounced as liars.

That’s bad. But there are liars and stupid liars. Here is the stupidity behind duplicity: there is no way anyone can predict the final cost of the F-35s until they go into production and countries start buying them. Any estimate has to be presented as a best guess, with wide parameters. That should have been an easy scenario to funnel to the public in a transparent way. Only it wasn’t.

It gets worse. Government ministers spent more than a year repeating that Canada was sticking by its commitment to purchase the F-35s. The reality is that the Government of Canada is not committed to buying anything. Nothing. De nada.

A consortium of nine like-minded countries has gathered together to try to develop a new generation of fighter aircraft to replace their current fleets, many of which are wearing out, including ours. 

This is a commendable joint effort to produce a sophisticated product at the lowest possible cost, while dividing the benefits of development and production among the aeronautical industries of the participating nations. Some critics say that Canada should pull out of the consortium and hold a competition to determine which aircraft to buy, but that would mean deserting our allies and walking away from benefits to our aeronautical sector – one of our few remaining cutting edge industries.

Some will argue that the consortium shouldn’t be spending a lot of money on jet aircraft anyway, because allegedly wars between large nations are becoming increasingly unlikely, because drone aircraft may replace manned jets somewhere down the road, and because rapid technological changes so prevalent these days might somehow make these aircraft outdated before their shelf life has elapsed – even though mid-life upgrades have traditionally dealt with this problem.

These are all maybes. Meanwhile, in the real world, China and Russia are developing advanced new jet aircraft, allied troops continue to require air support in the field, Canada’s sovereignty continues to require every bit of defence we can muster, and if Canadians wish to remain viable players on the world scene we will need to keep contributing to missions designed to maintain international stability.

If the consortium’s mission is commendable, it is also complicated, expensive, and – in the end – not totally predictable. But everybody knew that.

Will Lockheed-Martin, which won the consortium’s competition over Boeing, produce a superior aircraft to the Chinese and Russians? We don’t know, but we would be fools not to try.

Will the glitches in production that have delayed the F-35 development be overcome?  We don’t know, but we have some of our best technological minds working on it, so my best guess is that they will.

Will the end cost of each plane be so high that member countries will cut back on their orders, making each unit more expensive and endangering the whole project? We don’t know. There is already some slippage.

All developmental projects are a gamble. But if this project doesn’t work out in the end, we are not under contract to spend the money that we have been planning to spend.

If the product is state-of-the art and the prices do not skyrocket beyond what is reasonable, this will be money well spent. If neither of these conditions applies, it won’t be, and we shouldn’t spend it.

You would think a clever government could put that message across. Instead, after trying to be sly about cost estimates that were foolish in the first place, and after making it sound like the purchase was a done deal, this government hasn’t even managed to put out a list of Canadian aeronautical firms benefitting from the development of the F-35 – detailing what kinds of jobs have been created and what sophisticated skills have been developed in Canada.

You want stupid. This government will give you stupid. In spades.
[Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.]