By Ryan McGreal
Published May 07, 2012
If you've been following the Harper government's F-35 procurement controversy, this article in Foreign Policy magazine won't give you much comfort. Calling the Pentagon's F-35 Join Strike Fighter a "calamity", the essay states, "A review of the F-35's cost, schedule, and performance - three essential measures of any Pentagon program - shows the problems are fundamental and still growing."
The projected cost per fighter has almost doubled since development started in 2001 and continues to increase steadily as development moves into the flight testing and modification phase. Worse, based on overruns in the similar F-22, the lifecycle costs are likely to be more than three times the costs of the earlier-generation fighter jets the F-35s are replacing.
Forget the $10 billion discrepancy between the Canadian government's cost to buy the jets and its cost to buy and operate them: the actual operating cost will end up much higher than even the revised estimate.
The F-35 is way behind schedule and way over-budget, but that might be acceptable if the end result was exemplary. Unfortunately, this plane is also shaping up to be a dud.
The design was born in the late 1980s in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon agency that has earned an undeserved reputation for astute innovation. It emerged as a proposal for a very short takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft (known as "STOVL") that would also be supersonic. This required an airframe design that - simultaneously - wanted to be short, even stumpy, and single-engine (STOVL), and also sleek, long, and with lots of excess power, usually with twin engines.
President Bill Clinton's Pentagon bogged down the already compromised design concept further by adding the requirement that it should be a multirole aircraft - both an air-to-air fighter and a bomber. This required more difficult tradeoffs between agility and low weight, and the characteristics of an airframe optimized to carry heavy loads. Clinton-era officials also layered on "stealth," imposing additional aerodynamic shape requirements and maintenance-intensive skin coatings to reduce radar reflections. They also added two separate weapons bays, which increase permanent weight and drag, to hide onboard missiles and bombs from radars. On top of all that, they made it multiservice, requiring still more tradeoffs to accommodate more differing, but exacting, needs of the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.
Finally, again during the Clinton administration, the advocates composed a highly "concurrent" acquisition strategy. That meant hundreds of copies of the F-35 would be produced, and the financial and political commitments would be made, before the test results showed just what was being bought.
Saddled with divergent and mutually incompatible design goals, the F-35 tries to be all things to all political players and mostly fails at being well-suited to any of its myriad use cases. It's second-system syndrome writ gargantuan.
Canada's most prudent - most conservative - option at this point is probably to back away altogether from its F-35 purchase agreement, even if such an admission would gall a government that has made its support of the planes and their ballooning costs a matter of pride.