The F35 Embarrassment

So now the government has decided to obey their own procurement rules.  What does this exactly mean?  To me this means questioning all assumptions that go into this procurement.  Who are we as Canadians on the world stage, war fighters or peacemakers?  What should we be doing in the world?  What is affordable?  Perhaps we need to start there.

In the world of war fighters there is denial, but no doubt, that we are seeing the last generations of the fighter pilot, and probably already past the military utility of horrendously expensive manned fighter aircraft.  The mid east conflict has shown definitively the value of unmanned and remotely controlled aircraft in reconnaissance and ground attack roles. There is no doubt that soon the air to air combat mission will be unmanned. The same for the maritime patrol roles or to meet any airspace sovereignty requirements.  So what missions should the Canadian people ask an air force to fulfill?  Certainly sovereignty surveillance, aid to the civil power in disasters, UN peacekeeping assistance, and alliance contributions for mutual defence.  Hopefully, some mix of strategic transport, helicopters, maybe certain classes of drones will suffice.

On the subject of the F35, I hope that DND is very embarrassed,  as well they should be, in how this was handled.  They know better.  They have been managing major capital projects for over 40 years.   The political interference, the air force “old boys” network among allies, and the self interest must have been unbelievable..

If this procurement is now to be fair, then we need to remember that we buy aircraft generally on a COST, PERFORMANCE, SCHEDULE, AND INDUSTRIAL OFFSET BASIS.  A quick look would seem to indicate:

On the issue of cost, the  F35 fails miserably against  all competitors, which  are cheaper by a huge margins.  The F35 life cycle cost is 25 billion only if we are very very  lucky.

On the issue of performance, the  F35 fails again  and is mediocre at best against competitors. Canada is huge and stealth compromises range, payload and manoeuvrability.   Who pays for new air to air refuelling tankers?  The F35 has limited range and capacity compared to competitors. Hanging fuel tanks and weapons on the F35 eliminates stealth.   All others are better except possibly in the stealth mode.  Stealth is not an overriding criteria for Canadian requirements   Do we need it?

On the issue of schedule the F35 fails miserably against competitors. The delivery schedule is totally unknown with the F35.  The F35 will be manufactured under a block concept.   Block 1 basic aircraft that can fly with very limited mission capacity will be delivered first. Then further capability will be developed and tested and incorporated in succeeding block upgrades. Clients will have to retrofit every upgrade developed at great expense.  5 to-6 blocks are expected. This will be a configuration nightmare.    Whereas current competitors are tested and  largely developed before delivery. Development requirements are a NIGHTMARE to any aircraft procurement project as it is a license for massive cost overruns and delays.

On the issue of industrial offsets, if this is what this is about, this money could probably pay for 400,000 students through university, and many other programs, and more industrial development than this project will ever bring.  We can extend the life of the CF-18 or begin to invest in unmanned aircraft which is the next generation.

We have a chance to do this right, so let us get it right this time.  This must be a shining example of fairness, transparency, affordability and consistent with Canadian values of peace and security.

In peace

Paul Maillet

Colonel Retired (Former CF-18 Aerospace Engineering and Life Cycle Fleet Manager)
President Paul Maillet CENTER FOR ETHICS
Peace Services

3 thoughts on “The F35 Embarrassment

  1. I hope this is expanded into a press conference as the GPC needs other voices on the scene, especially ones with relevant experience to bring to the conversation.

    In my own independent analysis -as a Canadian couch potato with no interest except I like a prosperous Canada- I came to the conclusion that drone aircraft are the way to go, except over highly developed cities where piloted aircraft seem safer for mixed-use airspace -mil + civilian use – like checking out a civilian plane that’s not responding to civilian air controllers – in that case I can see a need for real pilots to check out the cockpit in detail, give hand signals to the pilot and not crash into other aircraft in the process.
    But even that seems technically more feasible each year to do with drones. An LCD screen on the fighter and zoom in steerable camera can do the visual communication plane-to-plane. And most city airports have 3D radar don’t they? For military scenarios, my guess is that communication back and forth to base -where the drone pilot is- at sufficient bandwidth for imagery -with low lag, and overcoming jamming- is the problem. So it’s really a wireless communications technology problem. Wireless engineers: I think you can save Canada a bucket load of money by solving the communications issues with drone fighters. Even then there are point-to-point communication systems such as laser. If you can get a communications plane above the battle scene -or perhaps a chain of them communicating back to a battleship- it can steer lasers -and the drone fighter do likewise back- and avoid electromagnetic spectrum jamming. And aren’t there things like spread-spectrum communications specifically for anti-jamming? My conclusions: while those in Canada’s Air Force -with Top Gun culture- would love a better manned jet, my own conclusion is that the MIL REQUIREMENTS need to be specified in such a GENERAL way -such as not crashing into other civilian planes- that drones can re-enter the bidding if their technology matures.

    Even for drone fighters you need jet engines and landing gear, payload, fuel tanks, wings and flaps etc. So if the F-35 program were generalized so that long-range polar interceptors, A-10-like large-wing low-altitude bomber, and drone and manned configurations of all those- can share basic parts, then it would make more sense. But it wouldn’t/shouldn’t be a Lockheed Martin-specific supply chain. Rather there should be multiple competitors offering to re-assemble the basic parts -and add special configuration parts- so as to have competitors bidding on interesting niche configurations while leveraging the industrial development program and parts supply chains for any basic fighter configuration. Shared parts should result in cheaper life-cycle costs -maintenance, mechanic training, repair procedure manuals, testing etc.
    ON THE OTHER HAND: DRONES don’t have to be as ‘excellent’ or expensive because no fighter pilot’s life is at risk. They can be more like disposable Bic lighters. So many of the assumptions built into a first-class manned fighter might not apply to a drone fighter, and various requirements and costs may peel away, saving money – but perhaps only if drones are a completely different part design and supply chain.

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