It’s called the F-35 -- a fighter jet described by its makers, Lockheed Martin, as the “pinnacle of more than 50 years of fighter technology.” It may turn out to be the marvel of engineering its makers claim, but so far, its critics say, it hasn’t been proven.
W5 wanted to see the F-35 first hand at the Lockheed Martin factory in Texas -- kick the tires, so to speak -- and speak with company officials. Our request was refused.
Canada placed all its bets on the F-35 in 2010 when the government announced it planned to buy 65 F-35s at a cost of $9 billion.
“It’s in a situation right now,” said Defence Minister Peter Mackay, at a media event for the announcement, “that at $9 billion dollars we don’t anticipate that the cost will go up.”
Not so, according to Alan Williams, a former Assistant Deputy Minister at the Department of National Defence.
“It may in fact cost 9, 10 or $11 billion to buy (the 65 planes),” he said. “But when you add in the cost to maintain this and sustain it and to operate it over 25 years or so, you’re really talking about $40 billion and that’s the number the government should be putting out to Canadians.”
The cost of the F-35 is just one question raised by critics. Another is the way the decision to buy the airplane was made without allowing other manufactures, like Boeing, Saab and a European consortium, to make a pitch.
“Canadians have seen this before in the EH101 helicopters (and) the submarine purchase,” said Paul Maillet, a former colonel with the Royal Canadian Air Force. “It’s not unusual that when you get major Crown projects in the billions or hundreds of millions of dollars that, for some reason, and I don’t know why, the culture just seems to make a mess of it.”
From the beginning, the government has dismissed criticism of the F-35 as unfounded.
“All of the hypothetical discussions,” said Defence Minister Peter Mackay, in
November 2011. “And, frankly, quite negative discussions are just clatter and noise.”
But less than six months later, in April 2012, Canada’s Auditor General, Michael Ferguson, blasted the government’s cost estimates and the way the Department of National Defence chose the F-35 without a competition.
“The department did not provide parliament with full cost information, or fully inform decision makers about the risks of this program,” Ferguson said during a news conference to announce his report.
Hot on the heels of the Auditor General’s report came another damning indictment of the F-35 program, this time from south of the border. In June 2012, the Government Accountability Office, the U.S Government agency that investigates how taxpayer dollars are spent, reported:
- The cost of building just one F-35 had doubled from $81 million to $161 million.
- Full production would be delayed by years.
- Testing was behind schedule.
U.S. defence analyst, Winslow Wheeler, said the American decision to buy the F-35 in 2001 was done, “almost entirely backwards. We’re making a commitment to buy these things and we’re producing it before the test process is complete. It’s absolutely insane.”
Almost forgotten in the debate about the F-35 is the fact that the Royal Canadian Air Force desperately needs to replace its fleet of geriatric CF-18s. But because there was no public bidding competition, other suppliers like Boeing, maker of the CF-18’s successor, the Super Hornet, were shut out of the process.
“I think the Super Hornet would stack up incredibly well against the F-35 in Canada,” said Boeing Vice-President, Mike Gibbons. “We meet all the high-level Canadian requirements perfectly.”
Smarting from the Auditor General’s report and the bad news from south of the border, the Harper government scrambled for damage control. What seemed like a done deal for the F-35 suddenly became a maybe.
“The government has not yet purchased this aircraft, has not signed a contract,” Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, said in April 2012.
The government’s solution so far has been to take the purchase of the F-35 away from the Department of National Defence and hand it to a newly created National Fighter Procurement Secretariat. The Secretariat has commissioned an independent study to estimate new costs for the F-35 and the results are expected in the next months.