Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

F-35 bad choice to replace CF-18s, ex-colonel says

Wrong for Arctic, its future shaky

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OTTAWA -- A retired air force fleet manager fired a salvo at the F-35 Wednesday, saying the strike fighter is ill-suited for Arctic missions and may become obsolete soon after it enters service.

Meanwhile, Liberal defence critic John McKay has asked parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page for a new analysis of the F-35 program costs.

Retired colonel Paul Maillet, an aerospace engineer and former CF-18 fleet manager, said the F-35 does not meet the needs of the government's Canada First Defence Strategy, a key pillar of which is Arctic sovereignty.

"How do you get a single-engine, low-range, low-payload, low-manoeuvrability aircraft that is being optimized for close air support... to operate effectively in the North?" he asked.

Maillet called the F-35 a "serious strategic mismatch" to Canada's military needs, and suggested the Royal Canadian Air Force would be better off purchasing a fleet of F-18 E/F fighters.

Committing to purchase a plane that is still in development is financially perilous, Maillet said, adding the planes are likely to cost much more than $25 billion.

"Development in this business is totally uncertain," he said.

Maillet, who twice ran as a federal Green party candidate, said the billions the government is planning to spend on F-35s would be better used for schools and health care.

Maillet, who now works as an anti-corruption consultant, said a truly competitive bidding process was never held.

Instead, he said, the decision was made by the "old boys club of air force generals and politicians" under pressure from allies and the "military industrial complex."

The trend lines in aerial combat, he said, point to a not-so-distant future when manned aircraft are a thing of the past. Unmanned drone technology is progressing at a staggering pace, he said, and will soon be capable of air-to-air combat.

Given the pace of drone development, Maillet said, the F-35 could be among the last major manned fighter projects. With new drone fighters not too far off, he said, Canada could delay a major purchase and extend the life of the aging CF-18s until these come to market. "We could do the skip-a-generation thing," he said.

McKay said unmanned drones should be considered for the routine tasks of patrolling the Arctic, especially as some can fly 20 hours without refuelling, and don't put pilots at risk.

"It's a hell of a lot cheaper to buy a UAV," McKay said. "We do have a huge coastline and UAVs seems to be a reasonable alternative."

The opposition will soon have some new ammunition for its war against the F-35, once Page completes McKay's request for "an update of the life-cycle cost estimate of the F-35."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2012 A13

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