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All heat, little light on F-35 purchase

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THE first report from the new auditor general, Michael Ferguson, is due today. It is said to concern how the government did not properly price the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter purchase, which is Canada's second-largest military acquisition ever after the new warships that were recently ordered.

Seldom in recent years has so much heat and so little light been shed on so important an issue as Canada's proposed purchase of the stealthy, fifth-generation F-35.

The same slivers of information have repeatedly been repackaged and the same sources interviewed again and again with little scrutiny of their backgrounds in procurement or their relationships with past governments of a different political stripe.

Two articles in recent days are typical of the genre. They both suggested -- and not for the first time -- that Boeing's F-18 fourth-generation Super Hornet was a better option for Canada. Recent purchases of small numbers of these aircraft by the Royal Australian Air Force and the U.S. Navy were cited as proof of this.

Strangely, contemporary security challenges in Libya and Iran were used to justify the Super Hornet over the F-35. There was no consideration of the environment Canada may face decades from now when China and Russia will have fifth-generation warplanes of their own and will likely have sold hundreds of them to other countries, too.

"You are getting a fifth-generation aircraft with 'stealth' that will still be flying long after the Super Hornets are obsolete," as Defence Minister Peter MacKay puts it.

Australia's Super Hornets and some of the United States Navy's were bought because of delays in the F-35 project. But they were not purchased to replace the F-35 or to give Washington and Canberra additional time to ponder whether to purchase that aircraft. As American and Australian officials have made clear, these buys were intended to plug an operational hole until the F-35 comes online.

Canada has not had to consider the Super Hornet to fill such a gap. Canada's fleet of 30-year-old CF-18 Hornets recently underwent a $1.8-billion upgrade. This means they can fly for a few years longer than similar Hornets flown by the Australians and most of the original Hornets flown by the U.S. Navy, which eventually are to be replaced by the F-35. This means Ottawa is in a better position to weather delays in the F-35 project until the jet is in full production and the unit price drops significantly. According to MacKay, Canada is prepared to wait until this pricing "sweet spot" kicks in.

As for what that sweet spot is, predicting the cost of any new military platform is a mug's game. According to fresh estimates published last week by the Armed Forces Press Service in Washington, the fly-away cost when the F-35 is scheduled to reach full production in 2019 is estimated to be $81.4 million today and $94.9 million in 2019 dollars.

Mark Collins, who writes a thoughtful blog on defence matters and is not a fan of the F-35, reckons the cost may be about $98 million per aircraft. He adds that figuring this out can be immensely confusing, which it certainly is. For comparison's sake, a Super Hornet, and its much older technologies, costs about $67 million.

These new figures for the F-35 still present political problems for the Harper government, which needlessly guessed several years ago that the jet would cost about $75 million each -- then stuck to that story. But it is much less of a stretch than estimates of as much as $150 million per F-35 that have been circulating.

The fact that Canada chose the F-35 without a competition has repeatedly been seized on by critics. But it was Jean Chrétien's government, not Stephen Harper's, that started Canada on the road to the Joint Strike Fighter when it provided about $200 million in seed money (with $1.8 billion from eight other countries) for research that produced a fierce competition in which Boeing's X-32 lost out to Lockheed Martin's X-35, subsequently known as the F-35.

Once this western consortium decided stealth technology was required to reduce the new warplane's radar signature, there was only one aircraft -- the F-35 -- to consider and therefore no justification for a tendering process. It is Boeing, whose X-32 was judged to be inferior in the JSF competition, that has been heavily pushing Canada to buy its Super Hornet instead of the F-35.

Matthew Fisher is columnist

for Postmedia News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2012 A10

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