Winslow Wheeler on F-35 purchase

In this written statement to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on National Defence, Director of the Straus Military Reform Project Winslow T. Wheeler offers valuable insight on the planned purchase of F-35 stealth fighters (Winslow T. Wheeler,”F-35 Testimony to Canada’s House of Commons“, Center for Defense Information, 21 January 2011).

He divides his submission into three key questions:

1. What will Canada’s F-35As cost?

In this country, advocates cite various figures, all of them misleading. The gimmicks include excluding important parts of the airplane, such as the engine (“non-recurring fly away cost”), excluding all development costs (“fly away cost”), using obsolete dollars that understate the contemporaneous cost (“base year” dollars), 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.

If and when Canada signs an actual purchase contract for F-35As in 2014, as I understand is currently planned, the real question is what multiple of CAD$70 million will Canada have to pay?  I do not believe it unreasonable to expect a multiplication factor of two. 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.

2. What will Canada obtain for that expense?

Until those tests are completed, you, like us [Americans], have only incomplete results and promises from people with vested interests to listen to. The aircraft your government wants to start taking receipt of in 2016 will come to you with only partly explored performance characteristics.
Most of the performance promises I have read in the official testimony to your committee come to you without empirical validation; some of them are completely unsupportable. Much of the “Fifth Generation” salesmanship of the F-35 to you centers on “stealth.”  The various negative trade-offs to obtain “stealth” seem to be ignored, and its actual characteristics have not been fully described to you in the testimony I have read.

Data available to me shows that an F-22 costs more than three times the cost to operate an F-15E.  No one should be surprised if the same ratio pertains to F-35As and CF-18s. There is a potentially devastating effect of this high maintenance cost beyond affordability. It can reduce the funding available to train pilots in the air. Precisely that has happened in the U.S. Air Force with the F-22.  With pilot skill being the all important determinant of success in air combat, it is a huge penalty to pay.

In sum, when you put aside all the buzz words, such as “fifth generation” and “stealth,” and look at what you will actually get in an F-35, the high cost begins to look all the more unaffordable.

3. Is there a good reason to wait?

Being in a hurry has consequences. Like your proposed purchase of F-35s in 2014 before all testing is completed and all costs are known, the United States has been rushing to “buy” before we “fly” for decades. It has been a disastrous practice, especially for our Air Force.

Of course, you are being told there is reason for deciding now. Your CF-18s are wearing out, and you have industrial inducements to commit now to the declared future wave of aviation. Virtually all of NATO faces a similar combat aviation modernization problem and has been offered similar inducements. However, others are beginning to take a more cautious approach.

Some of the foreign partners for the F-35 are having second thoughts, including in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, and perhaps others. In Australia, a vocal minority strongly opposes the F-35 purchase.

I have observed the defense establishment in the United States behave as foolishly as you are being urged to now. The result for us has been an aging, shrinking force at drastically increasing cost. There is good reason not to rush.

Photo by Jordon

Tags: Center for Defense Information, Defence policy, F-35, Straus Military Reform Project, Winslow T. Wheeler