F-35 Stealth Fighter: A bad deal for Canada

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By Michael Bueckert, Program Coordinator, Project Peacemakers

As you may know, this past July, the Conservative government announced what could be the single largest military procurement in Canada’s history when it declared its intention to buy 65 F-35 Lightning II aircraft (A.K.A. “Joint Strike Fighters”) to replace our aging fleet of CF-18s starting in 2016.

If you are familiar with this issue, then you are probably also aware of the narrow way in which the media has presented it.

On one side are the supportive arguments, provided by the Conservative government, military brass and the aerospace companies. When replacing our aging CF-18s, the F-35s are considered necessary for a number of reasons; namely, they provide interoperability with the U.S., they have the best, newest capabilities available, and the deal will create and support Canadian jobs. Additionally, by committing now we would secure the price at a low level.

And then there is the critical argument, provided by the main opposition parties: the deal is based on a sole-source contract, and without appropriate market competition we will inevitably be paying too much for the planes, and there may be better alternatives out there.

So the way it is framed, the debate is essentially one side saying that the F-35s are the best possible planes and this deal will support our army and industry, versus the other side saying that the deal is irresponsible and that we should have an open competition to get the best price.

This excludes the many important critiques being made by analysts in the peace community, primarily by the folks at Project Ploughshares, and by Steven Staples at the Rideau Institute. It is their work that I will draw from most in this presentation.

So let’s look at some of the main arguments put forward by proponents of the F-35 deal.

First of all, is the planes themselves. Proponents argue that these Fifth Generation fighter jets are top notch, with stealth and interoperability technology that makes them second to none.

As Defense Minister Peter McKay has said, “This aircraft is the best that we can provide our men and women in uniform, and this government is committed to giving them the very best.”

Without spending much time on this, what is it that the F-35 is designed to do?

Well, they are geared for aggressive military roles. According to the CBC, it is designed for tactical bombing and aerial warfare, equipped with a 25-millimeter gun, air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles, plus a variety of bombs. As Steven Staples puts it, the F-35 is “highly capable in air-to-air combat against other advanced fighters,” designed as “a first strike fighter-bomber intended for use in ‘shock and awe’ attacks.”

Well, I think that anyone who has read accounts of the American “shock-and-awe” bombing campaign of Iraq can appreciate how sickening it is just to imagine ourselves with that kind of capability.

But even without an appeal to moral sensibilities, even if we believe that in some cases the use of fighter planes is justifiable, and that national defence is a primary responsibility, we don’t have to look any further than the Government’s own 2008 “Canada First” defense strategy document to see that the purchase of these planes is inappropriate.

In that document, the government outlined the various threats that Canada could face in the future. According to Project Ploughshares, “you would be hard pressed to create a credible scenario from them where a stealth-enabled fighter jet is logically part of Canadian Forces’ response.”

This sentiment is reflected by Major General Leonard Johnson (retired), who argued in the Ottawa Citizen that apart from the incredulous prospect of war against an advanced enemy–Iran doesn’t count–it is “hard to see any useful military role” for the F-35.

And this argument–that there is no necessary role for the F-35 either domestically or internationally–is essentially accepted by F-35 proponents. Rather than point to how the planes could be used, they point to the unpredictable threats of an unknown future. We need the planes in order to keep our options open, and keep an aggressive militarism on the table.

The second main argument used by F-35 proponents is that by committing to these planes we are getting a good deal, and that it will provide and protect Canadian jobs. Conversely, rejecting the deal will waste taxpayers money and threaten billions of dollars in contracts for Canadian companies.

Well, to analyze these claims we need to look at the deal and the Joint Strike Fighter program in more detail.

Canada joined the Joint Strike Fighter program in 1997, under the Liberal government. The JSF program is a partnership of nine countries—the US, UK, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Norway, Denmark, Australia and Canada—to invest in the development, production and sustainment of three versions of a stealth, multi-role aircraft. Lockheed Martin won over Boeing in an early competition to develop the planes for the program. To date, Canada has invested 168 million U.S. dollars in the program, and is committed to spending an additional 551 million dollars between now and 2051 in production costs.

The planes are currently in the Production, Sustainment and Follow-on Development stage, and we are expected to start receiving them in 2016. What Canada did last summer is unusual, when it committed to buying 65 planes before they had even been completed, or tested.

The planes themselves, when we buy them, are said to total $9 Billion, with up to $7 Billion in maintenance costs over their lifespan. That would bring the total cost of the planes to $16 Billion, on top of the 711 million dollars in ongoing investment.

This sounds like a lot of money in itself, but even the $16 Billion is bound to be too low, for a number of reasons.

First, the program has been plagued by cost overruns, and estimates continue to grow. Project Ploughshares, using U.S.-based data, has estimated that the planes will come to a total cost of $30 Billion, which is about double what officials are saying. Further, because the planes are not completed and have not been tested, and there is simply no idea how much we will have to pay.

In testimony to the Canadian parliament, U.S. military critic Winslow Wheeler warned about the possibility of the planes being much more expensive than advertised. His testimony is worthy of being quoted at length:

“In this country, advocates cite various figures, all of them misleading. The gimmicks include excluding important parts of the airplane, such as the engine, excluding all development costs, using obsolete dollars that understate the contemporaneous cost, and – in your case – using American, not Canadian, dollars. There are other tricks that can be hard to unravel; I encourage you to thoroughly research any unit costs cited to you.

“Neither you nor I currently know, but it is certain that the costs being cited to you now are the ‘buy-in’ costs. Real costs, when your government negotiates an actual contract and as the program goes through its life cycle, are sure to be an unpleasant surprise to you.”

Moreover, the cost per plane is based on an estimated global market that is steadily decreasing. The more planes sold, the cheaper they will be, but many countries are starting to back down from their previous commitments. Project Ploughshares has reported on the fact that the sales projections quoted by proponents are now 10 years out of date; the 2001 projection was that 5,179 planes would be sold, and now it is more likely to be between 2 thousand and 3500. Using the old estimates are almost certainly intended to deceive, as they drastically reduce the expected price.

All this is to say that the 16 Billion dollar price tag is likely to be drastically inaccurate, and the supposedly good deal is not looking quite so good.

But what about the argument that this deal is good for supporting Canadian jobs? This is the most populist, and most common argument being put forward. (It should probably be noted that if the Government was committed to Keynesian economics, there are ways of supporting jobs that don’t involve manufacturing weapons. But let’s look at this anyway).

It is true that Canadian companies have benefited so far. Industry Canada notes that to date 350 million dollars in contracts have been awarded to 85 Canadian companies and research laboratories, which is more than Canadians have invested so far. Proponents say that up to $12 Billion is potentially available to Canadian companies in industrial benefits.

Some of those benefits are being realized right here in Winnipeg. A recent Winnipeg Free Press article highlighted Bristol Aerospace, noting its contracts to build horizontal tail components, and other parts for the F-35. According to the article, Bristol has committed about $100 million in capital spending to equip its Winnipeg plant, expects to ship 1 Billion dollars in parts, and had already shipped 35 million dollars worth of parts before we committed to purchasing the jets.

It is clear that Bristol, and the industry, have a lot of vested interest in this deal. Which is why its parent company, Magellan Aerospace Corporation, has come out with other companies to support the F-35 deal, citing outdated and exaggerated statistics.

However, while Canadian arms manufactures may have benefited so far, it is not at all certain that these privileges will continue. There are no guaranteed contracts built into the procurement deal. All we have is the opportunity to bid on them, and competition from industry in other countries is growing as they demand a fairer share in the distribution of contracts. Moreover, the figure of $12 Billion in potential industrial benefits is based on the outdated market projections I explained earlier, which assume an exaggerated number of planes will be manufactured.

Labour, for its part, has refused to passively accept these figures, but has refrained from speaking against the deal itself. Instead, the Canadian Auto Workers union has called for $16 Billion of guaranteed contracts to be included in the procurement deal, a demand that is certain to be ignored.

Now, what I have just done is to argue that the proposed financial benefits to Canada are not nearly as high as stated by officials and industry. The F-35s will cost much more than we think, and will give back fewer jobs than we expect. It is important to point out the misinformation that is provided on this issue, as proponents continue to sell the deal to Canadians. But the point is not simply that they are too expensive, as the Opposition parties claim. Yes, they are expensive, but we are not calling for cheaper fighter planes.

We should remember that the CF-18s, the planes which we are looking to replace, had been used to drop bombs on Iraq in 1991, and on Kosovo in 1999. Upgrading these planes–as suggested by Steven Staples–is not a peaceful alternative to the F-35s, although it would be cheaper. Similarly, buying unmanned drones to patrol the arctic–also suggested by Staples–does not get us much farther, because drones are easily incorporated into weapons systems.

Richard Sanders, of the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade, is disturbed about how analysts focus primarily on the relative cost of the F-35s, as if cheaper fighter planes will be more peaceful fighter planes. I tend to agree; we need to challenge not just these planes, but all fighter planes, all military spending. But we can start by working to ensure that we do not purchase the F-35, which would be a monumental waste of money towards immoral ends.

This article is the text of Michael Bueckert’s presentation to the Feb. 20, 2011 annual meeting of Peace Alliance Winnipeg.

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