The opposition must ask better questions about the F-35

Here’s a good one: Why is this jet the only possible future fighter aircraft for the Canadian Forces?


Photograph: Office of the Prime Minister of Canada

Philippe Lagassé is assistant professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

What did members of Parliament learn from Tuesday’s public accounts committee hearing on the F-35 procurement? Mostly that arguing with senior officials about costs and accounting methods is a frustrating experience, one where the opposition is at a disadvantage. Unless New Democrat and Liberal MPs hone their questions regarding the planned sole-source acquisition of new fighter aircraft, they will find that their ability to hold the government to account over the F-35 will soon dissipate. It is time for the opposition parties to ask better questions about the F-35.

Since the Auditor General’s latest report was tabled in early April, opposition parties and pundits have been fixated on his finding that the government excluded $10 billion in operating, personnel, and contingency costs from the stated price of the F-35 acquisition. Although the government was aware of these estimated life-cycle costs, ministers chose to present only the aircraft’s acquisition and sustainment cost when the decision to buy the planes was announced in the summer of 2010. This omission has been upheld as evidence that the Conservative government lied to Parliament and Canadians about the true cost of the planned procurement.

Opposition members hoped that senior executives involved in the F-35 process might be compelled to corroborate this assessment before the public accounts committee. It did not happen.

In a determined, and at time coarse, defence of his department’s figures, the deputy minister of national defence, Robert Fonberg, insisted that presenting the acquisition and sustainment costs alone was in keeping with past practice. He suggested that these figures outline how much of the military’s capital equipment budget would be spent on the F-35s, and he rejected the claim that operating costs were purposefully hidden, since these would be presented to Parliament as part of the defence departments annual personnel and operations and maintenance budgets once the planes enter service.

When pressed, Fonberg admitted that the defence department had been told by the previous Auditor General to give full life-cycle estimate when announcing the cost of a procurement. Yet he went on to say that, given the uncertainty involved in projecting future personnel and operating costs, the defence department is still preparing a novel methodology to calculate these costs.

Opposition MPs were obviously unimpressed by Fonberg’s explanation, but they were poorly placed to challenge the deputy minister. Backed by his fellow officials and the Conservative members of the committee, he asserted that the Auditor General’s findings were either flawed or misunderstood, as were those of the Parliamentary Budget Officer. Lacking the information and expertise required to offer a stronger retort, the opposition parties have thus fallen back on their initial charge that the government simply lied about the full cost of the program.

It is unlikely that opposition MPs will make greater headway if they continue focusing on this line of attack. While they may be convinced that the Conservative government was dishonest about the cost of the F-35, the issue has quickly become a morass of conflicting definitions, precedents, and assumptions. At best, the opposition will be able to prove that the government “managed the truth,” as one newspaper editorial put it.

In the meantime, other critical problems surrounding the F-35 procurement will be largely ignored or forgotten. The core findings of the Auditor General’s report were that the defence department and Canadian Forces failed to properly justify a sole-sourced procurement of the F-35, underestimated the likely acquisition costs and developmental risks associated with the aircraft, and were unclear about the value of the contracts the Canadian industry could win as part of the multinational Joint Strike Fighter consortium.

If these issues are not properly addressed by the opposition, the executive will not be effectively held to account and those who acted inappropriately may feel that they can continue to flout proper procurement procedures with impunity.

The key question that must be asked is why the F-35 is the only possible future fighter aircraft for the Canadian Forces, on what grounds the air force makes that claim and based on which defence policies and priorities. The Canadian military lacks many capabilities that larger powers possess; the Canadian Forces are not equipped to meet every possible threat or eventuality. Why was it judged absolutely necessary for the military to have a this particular aircraft and to write a statement of requirements that excluded any alternatives? Why were trade-off considerations and cost-benefit analyses not entertained in this case? How does the defence department explain the Auditor General’s finding that due diligence was not performed when addressing these concerns? And the most important question: did the defence minister or Cabinet allow the department to brush aside its duty to perform this due diligence?

Now, assuming that the F-35 best meets the military’s preferences, why was a competition not held? If the Joint Strike Fighter was without a doubt the superior plane, why not hold a transparent competition that would make this obvious to parliamentarians, stakeholders, and Canadians at large? The fact that there is still no contract for the F-35 indicates that there would have been ample time to hold a competition. It is also worth noting that a transparent competition would likely have produced far clearer information about the acquisition and life-cycle costs of different aircraft, including the F-35. Simply put, a competitive process would have provided the figures the opposition and officers of Parliament have been struggling to obtain since 2010.

It is imperative that the opposition turn toward these larger concerns now. A new secretariat is being created by the government to oversee the procurement of Canada’s next fighter aircraft. This secretariat will be mandated to oversee the acquisition process and provide Parliament with clearer information and costing estimates. Once the secretariat is in place, it should therefore silence the accounting debates by making all relevant estimates available to parliamentarians and the public.

Unless the air force is told to write a new statement of requirements and a fair competition is held, however, the secretariat will essentially be tasked with overseeing an acquisition of the F-35. As a result, the due diligence questions will remain unanswered, and the Auditor General’s main findings will have been ignored.

Before it is fully established, then, the opposition parties are advised to move beyond the life-cycle cost issue and ask more fundamental questions about how the F-35 was selected, why a competitive process was avoided, and who within the executive was responsible for these decisions. Parliament’s ability to hold the government to account during the next stages of the fighter aircraft acquisition process depend on it.


The opposition must ask better questions about the F-35

  1. Didn’t they spend almost two years asking why no competitive process was held and what the statement of requirements invovled? I believe the answer for two years was that a competitive process had already been held and that the F-35 was the only plane that met the airforce’s requirements

  2. I wouldn’t count on the opposition getting smarter any time soon. The LPC is soon going to be embroiled in an internal leadership campaign that will divide the party even further along left/right lines and surely have many of them saying incredibly dumb things. And since Mulcair’s taking the reigns, he too has been getting dumber and dumber.

  3. Yeah, that and the fact that the F-35 program development is seriously in trouble. Also, there is no F-35 to be had for $70-some million each (DND webpage on procurement breakdown) and there is no “peak-production” advantage of buying F-35s during 2016. The program is so troubled, that those last two assumptions by MacKay et al have no basis in fact.

  4. Makes me wonder why the A-G only had the one, easily complied with Recommendation (to provide full Life-Cycle Costs ASAP & update them regularly), instead of ‘Go back to the drawing board, & do the SRO first & hold a competition.’

    Ferguson did indicate in interviews that maybe we’re too far gone in the process w. the money committed in the MOU’s, but I still wonder: did he have other Rec’s in the earlier drafts that he was persuaded to retract, as was done w. some of the language in the misallocated Border Infrastructure / Gazebo G8 report?

    • er, SoR, not SRO: statement of requirements

  5. Sweet mother of God… I can’t bear it any more. I can forgive the oversight in journalists who aren’t subject-matter experts and who are pressed to make a publication deadline, but is it really possible for a professor in the field (who’s presumably pinning his reputation on his public writing) to avoid noticing the fact that THE GOVERNMENT HELD A COMPETITION THAT LED TO THE CHOICE OF THE F-35 BACK IN 2001? Maybe there aren’t enough Liberals on the committee to remind everyone that it was their government that joined the program that ran the international competition between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, but surely an “expert” in the field might find it worth mentioning.

    Here’s a complete description of the competition, in a backgrounder dated 2003:

    And here’s a transcript of a Nova documentary on the competition:

    Now can we all stop pretending that the F-35 was chosen without competition. ‘Cause that simply isn’t true.

    • Don’t be daft: it was the USA that chose it, for THEIR needs; and the HOPE that as many of the partners would also buy it for theirs. But the USA’s defence needs — and budget — are not the same as ours; it was always open to — and in fact was expected of – us to devise our own Statement of Requirements for OUR needs & hold a competition to determine whether we wanted or needed this particular plane.

      • If that’s the claim against the competition, than why not actually argue that point rather than tiresomely and falsely parroting the claim that there was no competition? And on that point, the SOR was drafted jointly by the nations involved in the program, which has included Canada since the late-1990s. Your disingenuity is showing.

        • Actually, in eigth grade I placed sixth in my schools math competition. SO DON’T ANYBODY SAY THERE WASN’T A COMPETITION!!!

        • They held a competition.
          We did not.
          Thus, there was no competition held for Canada’s specific needs.

          Now, we can either assume you’re a complete and utter moron who doesn’t understand this simple distinction, a pedantic prat who seeks to get their self-esteem by pointing out semantic distinctions that have no real meaning to anybody who has a remote sense of self-worth, or a deceitful jerk who is simply seeking to muddy the waters in support of a government that hasn’t done its basic due diligence.

          Which would you prefer?

          • I would prefer an argument that doesn’t resort to ad hominems.

            “They” in your case was the consortium of nations involved in what was then known as the “Joint Strike Fighter” programme, which included Canada (and has since the late 1990s). Canada got to dip its oar into defining the competition as much as any other country, the point of which was to develop the most advanced fighter jet possible using existing technology. This was precisely how the F-18 was developed, as well as the Harpoon missile and countless other advanced military technology programmes that Canada was uncontroversially involved in.
            But I perceive that you don’t know much about such international development projects, which is hardly surprising given that its an arcane area of expertise. What is surprising is that so many otherwise ignorant people would feel confident enough to weigh in on the subject of “how” the procurement process was conducted, rather than to just come out and say what they believe, which is that Canada shouldn’t have fighter jets. That is what you’re getting at, right?

          • The argument doesn’t resort to that. The conclusions of the argument impel them.

            And since your response tends to indicate you’re going for the first option, I’ll point out a little more clearly, since it’s obvious you missed it the first time, that my point has nothing to do with whether Canada should or shouldn’t have fighter jets.

            Had you gone for some option other than the first, you’d understand that my response was indicative of the point that what Canada *should* have is whatever meets it’s own specific needs. Not the needs of “Them”, but of “Us”, and if our needs happen to match the final specifications of the consortium then fine.

            However, no such process has been done to see what our own needs are, at least, that’s what I conclude when you consider this current selection is a single-engine, low-range, partial-stealth, sub-supersonic aircraft with mediocre maneuverability. Hell, those first two points alone suggest that there has been no realistic assessment of Canada’s needs.

            To reiterate, in hopes that maybe if you read something often enough you’ll clue in, if we honestly assessed our needs and decided they were best met by these particular planes, I’d have little problem with it. Just as little problem as I’d have if the conclusion was we needed some other type of plane, drones, dirigibles, stealth-snowmobiles, or sharks with frickin’ lasers on their heads. But don’t try to say that because we essentially happened to have a guy included on the Pentagon e-mail list about what they wanted their next fighter to do that we’ve held a competition for what plane best meets Canada’s needs.. at least, not if you’d prefer people not apply the descriptor of moron to you.

          • Congratulations! You have successfully defied the laws of gravity by managing somehow to condescend upwards. I won’t trouble to continue to try to educate someone so energetically ineducable, except to make two observations:

            (1) Isn’t it astonishing that you can be so confident that no needs assessment was done by the Air Force, given that such as assessment would be classified (note that an “assessment of needs” is a very different document than a Statement of Operational Requirements, but I guess you wouldn’t know that)? Likewise, your certainty of the form of Canada’s involvement in the JSF consortium is remarkable. I hope our government engages your telepathic services before our enemies do.

            (2) Because you are obnoxious, I’m disinclined to credit anything you say. Now, as it just so happens you haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about, but if you had managed to make even a single valid, substantiated argument, it would have been undermined by your unique brand of (admittedly literate) smarm. You might want to consider this in your rare personal interactions with other human beings in the future.

    • Competing manufacturers would dispute your claim: “”To our knowledge, Canadian officials have not received the full complement of Super Hornet performance data from the U.S. navy, including those about the new Super Hornet’s stealth characteristics,”
      Boeing vice-president Kory Mathews told the committee.”

      I think the story is a little more complex than you portray.

      • The SuperHornet was eliminated from consideration in that competition because it isn’t a fifth-generation fighter, it’s just a refitted F-18. But I will concede that the story is “more complex”; one would expect a professor who’s an expert in the field to address and expand on such complexities, not to perpetuate what is manifestly not the case: that there was “no competition”.

        • Why do we need a fifth generation fighter? Why isn’t a refitted F-18 good enough for our needs? What are our needs as far as aircraft are concerned?

          • Well, at a minimum it would make good financial sense not to acquire planes that will be obsolete within a decade, hence the emphasis on developing new technology (F-35) rather than incrementally improving old technology (SuperHornet). It’s been clearly established that this not the sort of vague calculus that accountants like, but the challenge is inherent in trying to confront “unkown unknowns”, which is basically what having a military is about.

        • To quote the Auditor General, “fifth generation is not a description of an operational requirement.”

          In other words, it’s meaningless jargon and not a justifiable reason to eliminate a plane from competition.

  6. The Russians, Chinese, and the USA all covet our resources. They are not stupid. They have discovered that it is far easier to buy our resources and the companies that produce them than it is to bomb us into oblivion! So that is what they are doing. No role for fighter aircraft or submarines here.

    The other more insidious threat of terrorism can also NOT be countered with high tech
    fighter jets or, for that matter, submarines.

    Are we planning to go bomb some third world nation? That makes no sense. I believe that most Canadians want no part of that insanity.

    If I am right then then if you are thinking about what questions to ask please lets start thinking outside the box and come up with a useful, affordable, realistic role for the CAF. Let us not buy equipment for traditional symbolic reasons!

    • It is the RCAF, willowy. The F-35 IS the result of a long competitive process in which Boeing and others lost out on the way to the counter. Which process was originally launched by the Liberal government, by the way. The requirement is clear: anywhere our Army and Navy operate we must have air superiority, even in this age the air-to-air missiles are fired by computers. It makes sense to cooperate with our allies. While professor appears professorial, neither he, the auditor general, nor the parliamentary budget officer know what they are talking about when the competitive bidding is involved with such expensive and sophisticated weapons platforms – for that is what the F-35 is, a weapons platform, not just a “fighter” a la Spitfire or F-86 Sabre I am glad you are clear on what the future holds re China; nobody else is, even the Economist Intelligence Unit,

      • There is no classic military threat to Canada. There is a threat to our freedom that is much more insidious. It cannot be dealt with by using exotic fighter type aircraft or submarines. We cannot afford to equip our armed forces to be prepared to fight off some imaginary enemy. Hell, with 65 F35s we could not defend Vancouver Island against a 1960s envisaged all out attack. That does not matter because that is not going to happen. Taken to the sublime, perhaps we should have a fleet of Starship Enterprises to protect us against aliens from outer space.

        We shouldn’t be buying planes to be dropping bombs on other nations. We should be buying planes which can patrol the entire country right up to the northern tip of the high Arctic islands in order to remind the world that they belong to Canada. We should be buying the best planes with defensive capabilities, not offensive, and which can safely all points in Canadian territory. No fighter type aircraft in the world, including the F35, can do that!

  7. The University of Ottawa? I see… shouldn’t this prof be busy doing his job warping young minds into ideological useful idiots of the far left, and indoctrinating students into the intolerant lefty mob mentality. Someone call Allan (gun registry) Rock, perhaps he could write an essay on the dangers of critical thought.

    • See, this is why the vote up/down is GOOD thing.

      • See… this is why lobotomy is a good thing… or, if you prefer… is GOOD thing.

  8. The only thing that’s clear is that the F-35 was the shiniest toy in the store window, and that the Americans (at that time) wanted as many NATO allies as possible to sign on.

    Those are the reasons no reasonable process was held, and now it’s a matter of saving face in the government and upper military ranks.

  9. I believe I’ve seen the opposition ask this question a number of times. The fact is the Cons don’t answer questions period.

  10. There are two kinds of lies, those that are outright lies and lies of omission. Most of those who sit in the Parliament of Canada are adept at using both varieties. They seem to think they are playing a political game a game of gotcha where the use of misinformation, known in the 1930’s and 40’s as propoganda, is the norm. wouldn’t it be nice if our political leaders stopped using kinds of lies?

    • Oh, what, and bite the hands that feed them?

  11. I’m glad all of you care so much about this because the rest of us DON”T, as part of the other 99.9% we have real lives to live! All stripes of Government and wanna be Governments piss so much money away that we the 99.9% really don’t care about he said / she said. I don’t care that much about a plane that I am not personally going to be flying any where in. The opposition, the media… it’s all just a lot of noise to make themselves feel important and to put dinner on the table for the family.

    • Alan if you didn’t care why are you here.
      Sounds like the PMO talking point storm is early today.

  12. NorthKorea follows same guidelines for procurement. Why would the neanderthals attending Ottawa’s Tea Party NOT follow suit?

  13. Washington is investigating through its Senate Committee the fraudulent overruns and complete chaos surrounding the contractors that Canada accepted without bidding! The cost far surpasses the $35B. Furthermore, defense experts all agree, that this plane’s single-engine is useless over the arctic. This is a thoughtless, costly misleading estimate prepared by our government and auditor-general is right in voicing objections.
    Pity….the poor Canadian taxpayer who’s going to fork out $30 billion for unnecessary jails (judges were jailed for receiving “cuts” in N.J) and another $45Billion for unnecessary fighter jets.
    Meantime, our Healthcare system is crumbling, our international reputation is going “down the toilet” and our economy and exports are being struggled by a neanderthal “oil and gas” agenda.
    Only in North Korea, you say?!!!

  14. The RCAF requires the best fighter in the world. Canadians who do not realize this fact, do not know what the real world is like. We also require the best subs, ships, the best of everything. If we do not, we will soon lose sovereignty to parts of our country and that is a sad fact. You have to patrol it with a credible force, or lose it.