The measure of the F-35


Alan Williams, the former assistant deputy minister with National Defence, points with concern to the department’s use of a 20-year timeline for the F-35.

“That’s a known distortion,” Williams said. “If you have as your intent to be as open as possible, you don’t do that.”

There is no question that government and military intends the F-35 or whichever other aircraft replaces Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s to remain the country’s main aerial fighter until the middle of the century. “It has to go for at least 30 years, which is our typical expectation,” Royal Canadian Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Andre Deschamps told a parliamentary committee on Sept. 15, 2010.

Williams says it’s not unusual to exclude expenses like personnel and fuel from projections, but Andrew Coyne contrasts Peter MacKay’s explanation with the Treasury Board guidelines.

… it is directly contrary to longstanding Treasury Board directives, which stress throughout that the costs of any acquisition must include “all relevant costs over the useful life of the acquisition, not solely the initial or basic contractual cost” (Contracting Policy, 2006). Among the costs deemed “relevant” are those related to “planning, acquisition, operating and disposal,” including forecast “modifications, conversions, repairs, and replacement.”

Specifically, an “acquisition decision that is based on the lowest purchase price but that ignores potential operations and maintenance (O&M) costs may result in higher overall costs,” it notes in Guide to Management of Materiel. Among the suggested considerations, in assessing operations costs: “Are all training costs included? Are the costs of fuel and lubricants included? Are all repair costs included?”

The Globe tests Mr. MacKay’s explanations against what the experts say. An American analyst tells the Canadian Press it’s time to ask questions about the F-35’s capabilities.


The measure of the F-35

  1. Be careful what you wish for.

    The inclusion of all the lifecycle costs makes the jet program cost a far lot more nominally, but if you include all the lifecycle costs, it will also narrow the cost differential between the F-35 and any competing jet in an open competition, since things like the cost of fuel and pilots and spare parts and maintenance will be similar.

    So unless the argument starts being that we don’t need jets at all, including everything including the kitchen sink in the costs will likely help the F-35 win an open competition.

    • Be careful what we’re wishing for?  I think that is exactly what we’re wishing for.

      If the F-35 wins an open competition, good on them, we’ll have gotten the best value for our tax dollars.  Until that happens though, there is no way to know that Canada got the best deal for new jets that it could have.

    • Do you somehow think that an open competition will accept bids that leave out required information (such as operational costs such)?  The RFP and procurement process, when done properly, will demand those costs from all competitors.  It doesn’t sound like Mr. Mackay has any interest in doing it properly, unfortunately.

  2. A retired assistant deputy minister under a past Liberal government straps on a red bow tie and sets himself up under a Skype camera from West Palm Beach, Florida and proceeds to tell us all that is wrong.  

    Why does someone not ask him where his objections were when he signed the original Memo of Understanding 10 years ago, instead of waiting until he is collecting his generous indexed pension while enjoying the good life in West Palm Beach ?

    • We signed on to an idea 10 Years ago because the goal was for high volume, low cost planes to replace the F-16 in their niche that were going to cost $50M each, not $75M, nor the $133M being estimated now. 

      Publicly funded projects that spiral that far out of their assigned funding envelope while delivering results like “stealth enhancing” coatings that peel off above Mach and “HUD-Less” targeting systems that require the installation of a HUD because they tend to fail deserve to be placed under question.

      • The expected cost of the F35A, which is the version Canada is going to buy is no where near $133 million. RO, you are referring to the Carrier and STOL versions which might be in the $125-150 million range.

        The upper range of the A version is $100 million, which is still very expensive. However, the price of the planes will be a rather minor cost when compared to overall program over 30 years.

        65 planes x $100 million = $6 billion.

        Yes, the additional armaments, fuel costs, maintenance, pilots training and salaries are expensive, but it’s hard to see how costing for other fighters on the market would be considerably less when these items are included (with the exception of the maintaining stealth capability).

    • The MOU didn’t obligate us to buy them.  He believes there should have been an open bid. 

  3. To all those posters hyping the F-35, a question…

    The F-35 is a single-engine jet.  It is known that twin-engine jets are required/preferable for arctic flying (i.e. lose one engine, can still fly home).  With the F-35, fly it north, lose one engine… and we’re out $150 million.

    Why is this acceptable in your eyes?

    • Peter MacKay’s answer: “It won’t fail.”


      • Let’s see him tell that to the pilot who crashes 500 km north of Resolute Bay.

        • In Peter MacKay’s world that’s no problem because a S&R helicopter will come and take you on a training mission and then make sure you arrive at your “pre-arranged” appointment.

      • He did actually say that.  LM has programmed him well. 

      • The issue isn’t whether it will fail – it will.  The issue is whether, taking into account the advantages/disadvantages/costs of two engined competitors,  the single engined F-35 is the best choice.  I’m far from knowledgeable about fighter jets, but I would think the weight of and additional technology required for two engined jets works against them.  I also wonder whether, although it seems implicit, the “catastrophic failure” rate of twin engined plains is that much better than single engined ones.

        • “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

          The CF-104 Starfighter was the precursor to the current CF-18 Hornet.  The Starfighter was a single engined plane, the Hornet twin-engined.

          Of the 200 CF-104s built, 110 were lost due to accidents.  Its aviation history earned it the nickames “Widowmaker” and “Lawn Dart”. (

          Of the 138 CF-18s built, 18 were lost due to accidents. (

          That is a 55% loss rate on a single-engined vs 13% loss rate on a twin-engined craft.

          What people have forgotten is that when the CF-18 was chosen, it was specifically chosen due to the twin-engines since the Forces did not want to revisit the days of the “Widowmaker”.

          Single-engines are far more likely to fail than twin-engines.  That is my concern as to why the F-35 is not the right choice for the Canadian Forces.

          • Well done, sir.

            Here I was about to reply with something like “How can you not care about the welfare of Canada’s military pilots?” when you came through with actual data that made the point.

            So, GreatWallsOfFire, what’s your response? Hopefully it’s more intelligent than the Minister of Defence could come up with. 

  4. The argument that Coyne makes about including ALL costs over the complete life cycle is legit,  but is most relevant when you are comparing ALTERNATIVES.

    Usually, the evaluation takes forecast expenditures/costs (inflated) over the whole life cycle of the proposal, and then discounts them back to present day (net present value, NPV analysis).

    If, however, you have already determined that you will purchase the F-35 irrespective of expenditures for yrs 20-35, (ie you are not looking at alternatives) , then it is moot. Because the expenses are so far out , and compounded discounting is so large, the effect on the bottom line on a NPV basis is not a decision changer.

    Too bad Coyne doesn’t direct his knowledge of economics on the proposed benefits of the Northern Gateway Pipeline in the studies submitted to the NEB. Lots of hokey assumptions there, as well, notwithstanding his beloved “private sector is always right” editorial leaning.

  5. The more I look into the capabilities of the F-35, the less I like the thing.  The only thing it’s got going is partial stealth at a discount price.  You lose that discount price, and you’ve got a plane that’s crap for any use other than supporting U.S. planes as they bomb people from a nearby base.

    That certainly doesn’t strike me as being in any way related to Canadian defense.

    • ” The only thing it’s got going is partial stealth at a discount price. “

      It’s also worth remembering that the F-35’s stealth advantage goes away the second you start trying to take advantage of it’s payload advantage because all those external bombs/missiles echo like the Grand Canyon.

      Which makes you question why you wouldn’t just look to add cruise missile or stealth drone capacity to serve as your opening strike tools and not risk pilots on those sorties at all.

      • Are you kidding – it loses stealth when it’s fully loaded/? 

        • The F35 has both internal and external payload capacity. External armaments and reserve fuel tanks will increase its radar signature.

          For maximal stealth only the internally stored missiles and guns would be used for first strike missions.

          • So is stealth only useful in a first strike situation?

          • No, presumably stealth would be beneficial in patrolling operations as well, where one doesn’t want to be seen, and extra fuel can be stored on board in the place of missiles (in those cases, only the internal guns would be available).

            It just wouldn’t be feasible with heavy external armament or for long distance travel without refuel support.

          • Duh – once you’ve struck, don’t you kinda lose the “stealth” advantage?

          • Ya think?  I’m talking about when the plane is loaded with the extra payload, would stealth be an advantage?

          • To JWoF. Your comment makes no sense. Even after a first strike scenario, the low radar signature would be a useful capability to return to base, unless we’ve switched to kamikaze strikes.

            I presume you’d want your pilots to return home evading surface-to-air or air-to-air counter attacks.

          • What I’ve been reading suggests that it’s stealth from the front cross-section only, and from the rear it’s not a lot more stealthy than any other single-engine plane.  If this is true, then patrolling wouldn’t really be an option either, because any enemy forces would light it up as soon as it passed.

          • True, but the idea is to be able to approach radar-equipped sites or targets without detection.

            From below the fighter can be detected fairly easily, but that this why they go so fast. The the fact that it can be seen moving away is less of a concern.

          • If surface to air missiles didn’t move faster yet, then I’d agree.

        • Functionally, yes. So you can load it up with internal munitions and only have 1/8th the payload, or you can load it for bear and lose your stealth advantage.

          Which is basically an Opening Salvo VS Air Supremacy strategy discussion

    •  It isn’t.  It’s all about the hypothetical possibility of China attacking North America in 30 years or so.  

      • Heh. Right at about the end of their operational life. Considering that their vaunted “stealth” capabilities may already be broken, by then I’d imagine they’ll be able to shoot them down from orbit.. presuming they don’t just hack the systems and take over the internal controls of the plane directly.

  6. As of last year the Pentagon is using a 50-year timeline, with the operating cost being $1trillion(US).