The F-35: Not just costly but obsolete

To aviation nerds, the Joint Strike Fighter is looking more and more like an ugly mutt

Costly. Obsolete. It's getting hard to justify buying this jet.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

In the bitter parliamentary dispute over the costs of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Canada has spent hundreds of millions helping to develop but may still not buy, there is an awful lot of “What did they know and when did they know it?” Predictably, as the Harper government’s position on the sole-source contracting has become less and less defensible, the debate is shifting to the bottom line: is the F-35 a good aircraft or not? It has become apparent that National Defence bureaucrats and Conservative ministers bet heavily on American military-industrial competence, and the voters may still forgive almost anything if Canada ends up with a cool Canadian-badged airplane that dominates the enemy in the battle theatre.

But this is the scary thing for the F-35’s defenders: to aviation nerds, the Joint Strike Fighter is looking more and more like an ugly mutt. Consider one important example of how our commitment to the JSF as a NATO partner has gone awry: the cutting-edge helmet-mounted display that was meant to help make up for the speed and manoeuvrability limitations of a single-engined stealth fighter. In the early days of JSF promotion, the user interface was touted as being at least as important to the project as the aerodynamic qualities of the airframe itself. Pilots would be sent into a fight with “360-degree situational awareness,” day or moonless night, giving them long seconds to defend themselves while opponents in more traditional aircraft were still figuring out which way was up.

Fast-forward to May 2010, when, according to the new auditor general’s report on F-35 procurement, the Public Works department began to question the need for a sole-source contract for new fighters. According to public-service rules, Public Works warned National Defence, there had to be an open competition for the contract unless it could be shown in advance that the F-35 was the only plane that met defence requirements. No problem, said National Defence; in literally one day it cooked up a list of those requirements, including one item that basically specified the F-35’s visionary 360-degree helmet display. The stated rationale for buying the F-35 thus depends quite heavily on this one piece of technology, even if one takes the word of F-35 proponents that it is a legitimate operational necessity.

And yet the F-35 is losing even this rigged game. In March, Aviation Week reported that Lockheed Martin, the F-35 prime contractor, put out a request for proposals on a completely new helmet-mounted display system that would “make use of commercial, off-the-shelf night-vision goggles.” Lockheed had announced in November that Vision Systems International, which built the existing system being tested in F-35 training, was being given a contract to fix a problem with “jitter affecting the display symbology” on the helmet displays. Now Lockheed wants an independent scratch-built backup—one that may in turn require a redesign of the F-35 cockpit and external sensors.

This is not the kind of thing one likes to see happening 19 years after the creation of the Joint Strike Fighter program and 11 years after Lockheed Martin beat out Boeing for the U.S. contract. The F-35 looks a lot like the second coming of the B-2 bomber; a high-tech military megaproject on which billions are gambled, and that ends up being a half-obsolete curio by the time all the kinks are worked out. The B-2 was designed for an era of strategic bombing in wars between superpowers; when the Cold War ended and an era of asymmetric warfare began, it was left with little justification, and the fleet has flown few sorties, considering its expense.

The development of unmanned, remote-controlled aerial drones is rapidly eroding the rationale for the F-35 in a similar way. More broadly, the existing American system of military procurement is beginning to look hopelessly slow and cumbersome in a period of fast, decentralized technological progress. Our military leaders and bureaucrats, influenced by hungry contractors and by notions of continental amity, married into that system early. They are, quite naturally, still offering the last spasms of a defence of that decision. But, as the Conservatives are quick to point out, we haven’t bought any planes yet. We are still free to treat sunk costs as sunk costs, and to impose proper public-sector purchasing practices on a military-industrial field that has too long considered itself exempt from them.

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