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Everyone’s trashing the F-35 (even me)

October 7, 2015

trashed-f-35s

There is less and less love for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II in Canada every day. Where once the American fighter jet was virtually guaranteed permanent residency status by the conservative government of Stephen Harper, it now faces certain deportation should the opposition Liberals win power in the October 19th federal election.

And even if the Conservatives win reelection they have served notice that they’ve gotten over their earlier infatuation and plan to see others (other fighter jets that is).

It’s quite a fall. Once the hope of both Royal Canadian Air Force brass and politicians alike, the so-called “fifth generation” American stealth fighter jet — over 18 years in the making — has turned out to be more trouble than it’s worth for all but the most hawkish of Canadian decision makers.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, Tuesday evening, a Fairview neighbourhood condo owner went and threw away their tokens of affection and support for the former shoe-in to be “Canada’s next generation fighter”.

But don’t worry, I rescued them.

Winning the P.R. war one trinket at a time

f-35-medallion-both-sides

The two identical medallions, nearly 4 cm in diameter, are made of thick, chromed steel, deeply embossed and enameled with four colours. One side features the Lockheed Martin logo in white against a circle of navy blue surrounded by a black ring, marked with 24 chrome stars. The opposite side shows a straight-on image of the F-35, nose toward the viewer, visually balanced on top of a red maple leaf, surrounded by 12 fat rays of red. Around all this is another black ring bearing a relief chrome inscription: “P-35 Lightning II : Canada’s Next Generation Fighter”.

There is nothing online about such medallions and I have no idea how a person might come by them (other than fishing them out of a dumpster).

It’s a safe bet that the medallions were promotional giveaways from U.S. aerospace defence contractor Lockheed Martin.

They’re substantial and well-crafted — suitable as eye-catching little paperweights on the desk, say, of a politician, or a civil servant, a military administrator, or a management type connected with any one of the 144 F-35 contracts awarded to Canadian companies since 1997.

Visible quality aside, the medallions are cheap trash to be churned out, along with T-shirts and embroidered jackets and ball caps and backpacks and shoulder bags and ballpoint pens and bottle cap openers and all the other ephemera that goes into promoting a six to nine figure fighter jet contract.

Meanwhile, in the land of the brave and the home of the F-35

In July, the U.S. Marine Corp took delivery of its first batch of massively over-budget and under-performing Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jets and within a year, the U.S. Air Force and Navy will follow suit.

Ultimately the United States government is committed to buying 2,457 F-35s. They will serve alongside, and be supported by, the U.S. Air Force’s twin-engine supersonic Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

At $150 million a pop, the Raptor was an even more expensive jet than the F-35 Lightning and as such the production run ended in 2012 with a total of only 187 operational Raptors being built.

Meaning that for better or worse the F-35 will be the face of American military air power for the next quarter century, until at least 2037, for a total lifetime cost to the U.S. government of approximately USD$1.5 trillion.

The single-seat, single-engine, multipurpose, all-weather F-35 fighter jet is really three different planes all sharing a common airframe. The goal of the program has been to replace almost all the different kinds of fighter jets currently used by the different branches of the U.S. military.

The Americans are stuck with the results of this questionable project. And only time will tell if all the envisioned savings and efficiencies of using a common airframe will materialize, or if the F-35 turns out to be  jack of all trades or a master of none.

The question of whether the F-35 will become the face of Canadian air power may not have to wait long; it could well be determined by the impending Canadian federal election on October 19, 2015.

North of the border, the F-35 program goes south

f-35-medallion-canada-side

From the beginning, it was a goal of U.S. government to line up other sovereign partners to help finance, manufacture and ultimately buy the finished product of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.

Canada joined the JSF program as a funding partner in 1997 under the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien — not so much, it is argued, to replace aging Canadian military jets, as to open the door to that possibility in the future, while giving the Canadian government the best information about the F-35 and giving Canadian aerospace companies the immediate right to compete for JSF contracts.

Between 1997 and 2002 the Canadian government contributed at least $160 million to the JSF project.

Conversely, 144 JSF contracts have reportedly been awarded to Canadian companies and institutions with an estimated value of $640 million over the decade of 2002-2012. The potential total value of Canada’s involvement in the JSF program is estimated at nearly $13 billion.

In 2010, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper announced Canada’s intention to spend $9 billion on F-35s to replace the RCAF aging fleet of CF-18 Hornets but backed off two years later.

In 2012, faced with the F-35’s mounting development problems, as well as stinging criticism of the F-35’s unsuitability for Canada (its military missions and its climate), not to mention a potential lifetime cost per plane of $600 million, the Canadian government announced that  it was no longer committed to the F-35 — as Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose told reporters in December of 2012:

“We have hit the reset button and are taking the time to do a complete assessment of all available aircraft”.

A year later, the press got wind of a five-year-old computer simulation of the F-35’s air-to-air fighting ability conducted by two analysts with the California-based think-tank, the RAND Corporation. The 2008 study was both stunning and damning:

“The F-35 is double-inferior”, the analysts, John Stillion and Harold Scott Perdue wrote. The new plane “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run.”

And then in 2014, General Michael Hostage, head of air combat command in the U.S., publicly declared that without the support of  F-22s (which Canada won’t be getting), the F-35 was “irrelevant”.

The F-35 was looking like one of the the biggest boondoggles in recent U.S. military history but American advocates of the F-35 (including General Hostage) countered by pointing out that the majority of the critics…

  1. Didn’t understand what the F-35 was designed to do
  2. Didn’t know the difference between the future and the past
  3. And basically didn’t know what they were talking about

An in-depth article that starts by looking at how an early F-35 was outmaneuvered by an old F-16, goes on to clearly lay out the case for the F-35 — how it wasn’t designed to dogfight like a Second World War Spitfire (or an F-16).

The F-35 was designed to use it’s superior stealth and signal intelligence-gathering abilities to hide in plain sight and destroy targets at great distance with impunity — like lightning.

The article makes a strong case for the fighter jet but by placing it in context as an integral part of a larger system, it also strengthens the case against Canada buying the plane.

The U.S. military did not design the F-35 to function as the standalone asset, cut off  from support, the way that it would have to function in Canada (and it would be very cut off).

In 2011 it was widely reported that any initial production run of F-35s destined for Canada would arrive, and have to function for a few years, without the ability to communicate with satellites — a necessity for the planes to be able to patrol in the Canadian arctic (and defending the arctic was a key reason why Prime minister Harper said that we needed the F-35s).

Lockheed Martin said that it would make sure to have the functionality in production by 2019 but in the meantime, the RCAF had considered installing the same communications pods used by Canadian CF-18 Hornets on the F-35s — a stopgap measure that would have potentially mooted the plane’s vaunted stealth capabilities.

Buying the stealth jet depends on buying the stealth candidate

The Canadian government of Stephen Harper no longer actually supports buying the F-35 fighter jet but on the eve of a federal election it can’t tell the voters that. Having earlier made buying the U.S. jet an issue of Blood and Conservatism, it now doesn’t want to come off looking weak on defence. So it simply says  that all options are on the table.

The federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair decries the billion-dollar-a-year cost and acknowledges that the F-35 is unsuited to Canada’s needs because, if for no  other reason, it cannot work well in the cold of the Canadian arctic, yet he has chosen to repeat Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refrain that all options should be on the table — including the F-35.

Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has said unequivocally that under a Liberal government, Canada would scrap the deal to buy the over-priced and under-performing F-35s and instead buy a cheaper fighter jet chosen by competition and invest the savings in building up the Royal Canadian Navy.

According to the Globe and Mail, Federal Green party leader Elizabeth May agrees that Canada should not buy the F-35s because, in all this time, the government has yet to make a coherent case for buying a stealth fighter jet.

Apparently, according to the same Globe and Mail article, not even the U.S. Pentagon agrees with Prime Minister Harper when he claims that withdrawing from the F-35 procurement process would hurt the Canadian aerospace industry.

Canada’s role as an essential supplier to the program is independent of whether or not we buy the fighter jet. Click the images to enlarge them.

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