An F-35 panel, great—but the hard decisions still loom

John Geddes on fresh starts and tough choices

After a flurry of subtly conflicting stories, the most likely next step in the federal government’s hopelessly bungled program to buy Canada some new fighter jets now looks like the appointment next week of an expert panel, which will be asked to survey the available options.

To the blissfully uninitiated, that must sound blandly sensible. To the rest of us, the panel’s very existence will finally refute and rebuke several years of insistence by Conservative politicians and Department of National Defence officials that Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was the only plausible jet for Canada’s future needs. No point, they told us, to look any further.

But if the naming of an independent panel represents the welcome injection of a more open-minded approach, its creation alone doesn’t guarantee either of two developments that critics of the F-35 are hoping for: it doesn’t mean the F-35 is out of the running and it doesn’t mean the government will ultimately hold a competitive bidding process for the new jets.

We won’t be sure until next week exactly what the panel will be asked to explore. But Christian Leuprecht, a security expert in Kingston, Ont., jointly appointed to the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, says one thing is clear: the panel will find cheaper off-the-shelf options available, including U.S. Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet, the European EADS consortium’s Eurofighter, Saab of Sweden’s Gripen, Dassault of France’s Rafale.

“A number of these planes you can get for 50 per cent to 75 per cent of the cost of the F-35,” Leuprecht says. But he stresses that’s just considering the up-front cost. The F-35 might still turn out to offer significant advantages in terms of long-term maintenance costs, expected lifespan and, especially, operational versatility. “I think the government wants to come back and say, ‘We’ve looked at the F-35 and four others, and here are our options’.”

Wouldn’t that sort of candid clarity be a refreshing change? Throughout the F-35 decision-making process, federal officials consistently tried to shut down any discussion of other options for what they used to call our “fifth-generation” fighter. “Let’s state the obvious,” Dan Ross, then the top Defence bureaucrat on the file, told MPs on the House defence committee a couple of years back, “you must have more than one viable supplier to have a competition.  There is only one fifth-generation fighter available.”

And that was, of course, the F-35. Starting last spring,  though, the government pivoted sharply away from that position. Even the new chief of defence staff, formerly a big fan of the F-35, said recently other options exist. But even with that acknowledgment, Leuprecht says, there’s no reason to assume a full-blown call for competitive bids must eventually follow. “Whether it ends up having a competitive process or not,” he says, “the government wants to have a much better rationale for why this is the best choice, or why it’s not the best choice.”

The panel will reportedly be asked to submit its findings sometime early next year. That seems hurried, but time to come to a decision is not unlimited. The CF-18 fighters Canada now flies are expected to be phased out between 2017 and 2020. “New planes don’t show up overnight,” Leuprecht says. “By the time we train pilots, this can be a two-, three-, four-year lead time.

But if the panel must work fast, Leuprecht points out it will hardly be toiling in isolation. There’s the KPMG report on the F-35 program that’s to be released next week, confirming much higher lifetime costs for the Joint Strike Fighter than previously admitted by the government. There’s whatever the Public Works bureaucrats who took over the lead on this file from Defence last year are discovering. And there’s the viewpoint of Defence, likely still staunchly pro-F-35.

From all these sources of analysis, the government needs to find a way out of this maze of its own creation. Next week might look like a fresh start, but the hard choices still loom for sometime in 2013.




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An F-35 panel, great—but the hard decisions still loom

  1. “the government wants to have a much better rationale for why this is the best choice, or why it’s not the best choice.”

    Precisely how many years has it taken for the govt to even get to square one? How pray tell did SH ever get a reputation for competence again?

    • Chris Alexander, again and repeatedly, wants us to forget the past and concentrate on the 7 Point Plan. Why was he ever considered a star candidate again?

      • He actually makes me laugh when he’s on the politico shows. Just an angry, whiny, repetitive talking point machine! Guess he never had the stuff he was rumoured to possess, just another mindless puppet.

      • His whole career was based on self-serving political lies. At DFAIT he took point on Kandahar, telling us again and again how well things were going, and how “next year” would be different.. His career took off and nobody bothered to hold him to account when we accomplished absolutely none of our goals. Now he is taking point on the F-35 and it’s more of the same.

  2. Please, please, please tell the Canadian taxpayers what we need this aircraft for! There is no military requirement for them. We should not burden our children and grandchildren by making them pay for this colossal waste!

    Ask yourself to imagine a credible scenario that could arise and be countered by 65 F35s or, for that matter, fighter aircraft of any type. I doubt if you can come up with a realistic scenario.

    The interception of the odd Russian aircraft just outside our territorial borders has been going on since the 70s. The intercepts were done with CF101s and now with CF18s. The Russian aircraft presented no threat then and they present no threat now. An all out attack would be insane and involve ICBMs. No role for the F35.

    Further, why would we, in support of NATO, be buying an aircraft capable of attacking third world nations. That makes no sense to me. Do Canadians want to be a part of that organization? I think not!

    Further, if an airliner approaching any major airport in the world turns rogue it would be on its intended target before any meaningful action could be taken to stop it. No role for fighter aircraft. In this case we must simply be ready to pick up the pieces that such an insane action would cause.

    We cannot defend ourselves against an insane all out massive air attack. No matter, that is not going to happen. Those who covet our resources are buying them! No role here for fighter type aircraft.

    Notwithstanding the foregoing, a few token fighter aircraft for use at air shows are always impressive. What a waste!

    As I see it, the real threat to our sovereignty is an economic threat. The Russians, Chinese and the USA want and need our resources. It is not in their interest to bomb us. Rather, they are buying our country.

    For our part, the threat is that unaffordable actions by our government will bankrupt our country and compromise our ability to do what is necessary to defend against the real threat. To defend our “sovereignty” we need to counter the economic threat to our Arctic, protect our coastal fisheries, deal with internal unrest, root out terrorist cells, and, most importantly, keep our country financially viable. No role here for the F35.

    In support of our most important ally and neighbour to the south, since we are not a super power, we must ensure that they are never threatened by activities that occur or originate in this country. That will allow them to handle “the big stuff”. They always have. To say otherwise is to be kidding ourselves about our own importance.

    In other words, let the Americans do their thing with their 2400+ F35s and let us spend our dollars wisely so they don’t have to worry about their Northern Border. That would be of great assistance to them.

    • In other words, the “big stuff” — defence of our own nation, with our own resources — hand over to the US. How typically Canadian.

  3. the seven point plan the cons are talking about is going to be renamed next week to the “stealth seven point plan”because not one canadian taxpayer will ever again hear a word about it.the right wing writers will never speak the truth about their con goverment,only go after JTjj

  4. the new plan will be called the “stealth seven point plan”because no taxpayers will ever know about it.

  5. The Pakistani model built in concert with China (JF-17 I think) costs maybe $30M per aircraft. The wear rate of the F-35 is a turnoff. I’d rather source it from a potential adversary and not need to replace the skin. The JF-17 can go 300km (1300km range) more than the F-35. The F-35 can carry 3x as much payload. And has stealth.
    For the north, the bigger range is important. I’d rather buy the $30M jets especially if they are more durable. Then buy a little from EU or USA in the off chance China is an adversary.
    How much to build them here and how many job/yrs created?

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