The F-35s and other military procurement tales of horror


It would be difficult to imagine a more thoroughly botched military procurement program than the F-35 fiasco that has been taken apart today in a report from Michael Ferguson, the Auditor General of Canada.

Hard to imagine, that is, unless you consider the military’s purchases of new Cyclone helicopters, which soared in price from a planned $3.1 billion in 2003 to an actual $5.7 billion five years later, and Chinook helicopters, the cost of which leapt from just over $2 billion to nearly $5 billion between 2006 and 2003. Ferguson’s predecessor, former AG Sheila Fraser, slammed the Defence department in a fall 2010 report for disguising the true eventual price of those buys.

Or, if you’re looking for yet another example to rival the F-35 debacle, there’s the plan to replace Canada’s aging fleet of search and rescue planes, first announced in the spring of 2004, supposedly fast-tracked in 2008 by Defence Minister Peter MacKay, and still pending after all these years. That multibillion-dollar program was derailed and delayed by howls of outrage from aerospace industry companies over claims that the procurement specifications were skewed to favour a plane made by Europe’s Alenia.

It’s worth considering both of these examples if you’re trying to sort out what might possibly be going on with the F-35. Fraser’s scorching critique of the purchases of the Chinooks and Cyclones suggests the most nefarious possibility: that federal bureaucrats in charge of buying military hardware systematically lowball cost estimates to try to get politicians to approve the equipment they want.

The saga of the long-delayed search-and-rescue plane program suggests a more complex motivation, though still nowhere near a good excuse. Back in the fall of 2010, when the F-35 purchase was emerging as a big issue, I asked retired Lieutenant-General Angus Watt, a former chief of air staff, and a big fan of the Joint Strike Fighter, why not just have an open bidding process and, if the Lockheed Martin jet is so clearly the best, it would win. Watt’s answer:

I’m not personally opposed to a competition. But the circumstances of a competition would be difficult to manage. There aren’t a lot of competitors, apart from the F-35. In fact, it’s questionable if there are any…What happens then, and I’ve seen this before in other aircraft programs, is when the government specifies [its requirements] and it turns out that only one aircraft is even close to meeting them, then the other, lesser competitors will start to attack the specifications. Rather than competing the aircraft, they compete the specifications.”

I followed up by asking him for which procurement program specifications perceived to favour one bidder became the issue, and Watt answered, “Fixed-wing search and rescue—it has paralyzed the department.”

So I look at the timing of the decision back in 2010 not to hold a normal process for  acquiring fighter jets—to sole-source the F-35—and I wonder if the military— mired as it was then in seemingly endless disputes over search-and-rescue planes—just decided to try to bypass that whole messy business of open bidding.

If that was the aim, it has turned out not to be much of a shortcut.


The F-35s and other military procurement tales of horror

  1. The idea of a “Joint Strike Fighter” purchased in bulk because of several countries buying still makes sense.  Problem seems to be the F-35 is still evolving and certain aspects have no comparables.
    Pretty good article here discussing this – we are not the only ones re-thinking.
    “The delays and budget pressures at home are prompting eight international partners who are helping fund the F-35 development — Britain, Italy, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Turkey, Canada and the Netherlands — to rethink their orders as well.”

    • Why do you think we had to wait for the presentation of the AG to make the government “re-think?”  Why would they not check into things after hearing from PBO — and oppo and media and all the other governments you listed.  I don’t understand that, do you?

      • There is so much going on with this – a biggie is the US DoD getting their budget cut but they don’t know how much yet.   Then there are the delays which move the sweet spot for cheaper production out further.

        Don’t forget the way the costs to maintain have been worked out this time, based on fifty years rather than the usual twenty.  The link I gave talks about other things like the material used to make the jets is mostly carbon composite not metal = huge savings in rust removal and life span. 

        From what I’ve read lately, with so many countries cutting back their orders it is messing up the bulk buy cost savings angle.

        Why on earth would the opposition and media be considered jet experts?  PBO does a good job but with all the variable with a prototype I can’t see how he arrives at his figures sometime.

        • I’m sorry, but I knew that the line the government was spewing a year ago was B.S.  EVERYONE WITH HALF A BRAIN knew it was B.S.

          “Jet experts”???  All you had to do was read a newspaper to figure out that their numbers were a transparent lie.

          The PBO isn’t some super genius.  He came up with basically the same estimate the government did.  The difference is, he made his accurate estimate public, while the government kept their’s hidden, and kept right on spewing numbers they KNEW were false.

          • So basically you are saying the PBO is against our troops.  

    •  Are we the only country who has been caught out lying about it?

    • No, we’re not the only ones.. but we are among the last.

      And unlike the other countries, it took an auditor general’s report officially publicizing what most people with half a working brain could already figure out simply from Lockheed’s announcements.

  2. We need to build a strong citizens’ movement to oppose this kind of military corruption. Watch next week for the launching of Campaign to build One Big Campaign.

  3. At the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute’s “3Ds Blog”:

    ‘F-35: The Guts of the Auditor General’s Report

    The text is here.  It seems clear to me that the Air Force,
    supported by civilian DND bureaucrats, knew what they wanted and got
    it, practically regardless of any concern for honesty or fair process.
    Ministers and Parliament–and the public–were clearly misinformed
    through a severe economy with the truth.

    I think the RCAF Commander (formerly Chief of the Air Staff) should
    resign forthwith, several senior officers and bureaucrats should be
    fired–and so should be Ministers MacKay and Fantino who, if not
    willfully deceptive, have been culpably ignorant. And their personal
    staffs should be asked a lot of nasty questions and go out the door
    fast too. Instead:

    “Tories boost oversight – but heads won’t roll – on F-35 purchase”

    The whole affair is a disgrace; the politicians, bureaucrats and
    military effectively are no longer responsible to anyone.  Anyway, draw
    your own conclusions…’

    Read on:


  4. The Libranos started the ball rolling with the J35 they also purchased the Cyclone helicopters and lets not forget the Sea Kings are still flying thanks to the Shawinigan Strangler…

    •  Ah, the old “two wrongs make a right” defence. Classic.

  5. Geddes has it exactly right – defense procurement has become so politicized that it’s reached near-irreparable dysfunction.  Politicians have made military spending toxic – the NDP is essentially pacifist, the Liberals have for decades pitched a “soft power” philosophy that downplayed the need for a capable military, and the Conservatives have used it as a wedge issue to bash the other parties.  Meanwhile, the Canadian Forces are caught in the middle and deprived of the gear they need for their missions.  The cancellation of the EH-101 helicopter program in 1993 is a fine example of the dysfunction:  the right helicopter for the mission, procured following all the processes, cancelled to allow a new government to score some political points.  Procurement of a substitute was repeatedly delayed.  The government even suffered the embarrassment of having a stripped-down variant of the EH-101 purchased as a best candidate for the search & rescue mission, albeit at a higher price than if the original deal had been pursued!  

  6. Other countries are questioning their signing up for the F-35. Keep in mind Canada has not inked the final deal yet.
    With the F-35’s sky-rocketing price, I believe we should look at alternatives such as the Gen 4+  F-18 Super Hornet such as recently bought by the US and Australia.  At 50 million each we could get three for the price of one F-35.  It has a fixed price tag and is a proven excellent performer.