The F-35 Boondoggle

I know we’ve been over this ground before, but remind me again… why does Canada even need this heinously expensive new class of fighter jet at all? What possible military threat are we defending ourselves from? Seriously. What is the point?

Aside from the absurdity of ploughing something like $30 billion into a high-tech gizmo that serves no useful purpose whatsoever (it’s worth noting that Lockheed Martin’s last iteration of this plane, the F-22 “stealth raptor” fighter, has never actually been deployed in combat), there is the matter of the Harper government having egregiously misled Canadians about the cost of the program during the last election and then repeatedly lying to parliament subsequent to that. For instance, according to Harper and his ministers last year, there was a contract in place that would prevent cost overruns, but now they claim there is no contract. So which is it?

Bob Rae has called on Harper to resign over the issue, but, of course, nobody seriously imagines that’s going to happen. I mean, we’re only talking about a complete lack of government oversight involving a measly $10 billion discrepancy in accounts… it’s certainly nothing anywhere nearly as serious as the “AdScam” fiasco where possibly $100 million of taxpayer money was at stake! In that case, it was entirely justified that every “conservative” worth his or her salt should howl with OUTRAGE! like a gut-shot dog every day for years and years and years…

28 Replies to “The F-35 Boondoggle”

  1. You ask a very important question, one that goes eerily unspoken. The F-35 is our admission ticket into America’s aerial Foreign Legion. It is a light bomber that is essentially useless for Canadian service. It’s everything we don’t need in the north – single engine, limited range, limited weapons capacity.

    The F-35 is designed for offensive bombing missions in hostile territory of a nation with advanced air defences. Think China for example. But the F-35 only works properly with a flotilla of sophisticated support aircraft. It requires stealth air superiority fighter coverage, the F-22. It requires airborne warning and control AWACS guidance. It requires a bevy or aerial tankers. Most of that stuff we don’t have nor do we plan to buy. Hence our F-35s will join with other coalition partners’ F-35s operating under either NATO or US control.

    Remember we’re not talking the United States of the 20th century. We’re talking of 21st century America, hyper-militarized America, where military force has long replaced diplomacy as the preferred instrument of foreign policy. When you buy the F-35 you’re signing on to that militarism, what Ignatieff would call “muscular foreign policy.”

  2. There are no conservatives left in the Conservative Party, hence the blind loyalty to the supreme leader. If Harper does anything then it is by definition not legal but right and therefore should be supported at all costs. I would call it a cult of personality, but there is no personality just an infallible ideology.
    I’m more of a fiscal conservative than Harper, heck Chretien and Martin were more fiscally responsible than this present regime and apparently they’re socialists.
    They must have known some of the figures involved, because the contempt of Parliament charge was based around these costs. Any counter argument Harper and his friends wanted to have made must have involved seeing what the figures were. Maybe it was to prevent the release of these figures that they took the contempt decision in the face?

  3. MoS makes the point the this contract is proof of our absorption into the American Empire …

  4. Grant told us it was too late in 1965. Are we really still surprised ?

  5. Whether or not we get F-35’s, we’re still probably going to be involved in the hyper-muscular adventures of the 21st cent. USA. I don’t see any of Canada’s leaders seriously willing to consider an independent foreign policy. Even the NDP seems willing to cater to the “imperial feminists” and the R2P’ers.

    As long as you dress it all up in a blue helmet, and as long as the enemy can’t really shoot back, Canadians enjoy their role of subcontractors in whatever war the USA starts next. Canadians love to spread their secular rationalist humanistic investor-friendly happiness, and we find our lately rediscovered muscularity highly validating. I mean, we’re one of the five happiest countries on Earth, so what right does anyone have to oppose us?

    Specfically re: the F-35:

    1. I can’t think of a major modern warplane that hasn’t been plagued with huge cost overruns, to say nothing of the cronyism. Doesn’t anyone remember what it was like when we first got the F-18’s? Or when Canadair in Montreal got the maintenance contract for them, rather than Bristol in Winnipeg?

    2. The F-35 can fly air superiority missions, but since it’s a multi-role aircraft it’s not going to be as good as the more specialized F-22 (which btw the Americans refuse to sell even to their closest allies). Bear in mind that the F-18 was not as good an air superiority fighter as the F-15. Then as now, Canada buys the more generalized fighter/bomber since we can’t afford to buy several different types.

    3. We could have gone cheaper with Eurofighters or SuperHornets, but since we don’t want to have another major fighter program for another 20 or 30 years, why purchase aircraft that are already obsolescent?

    4. If we don’t replace the F-18’s, then we are basically disbanding the Air Force. A modern Air Force isn’t something we can build up quickly in a crisis. To be sure, the only easily foreseeable crises in today’s world are likely to be the ones caused by our own ally, but things could change.

    The way to stay out of our allies’ aggressions is not to disarm our country. Instead it’s about learning how to say No.

    One last thing about the grotesque costs of the F-35 program: since all of our currencies are going to get inflated all to hell over the next decade or so, the initial development and acquisition costs won’t seem that bad by the time these aircraft have finished their service life.

  6. @Roland – actually I don’t remember the cost overrun problems with the CF-18 you reference. Care to be specific? I also don’t recall performance issues experienced by the CF-18 similar to those recurring in the F-35. Nor do I remember the CF-18 being designed around one critical technology so ripe for being countered, i.e. stealth.

    I assume you know how brittle US stealth technology is. When Iran captured Lockheed’s RQ-170 stealth drone before Christmas they got a good deal of it free of charge. As stealth is the product of design factors plus radar defeating materials plus electronics, even the Americans figure Iran and its patrons got the keys to a lot of what we’re paying such a premium for in the F-35. The Russians, by the way, are already fitting their SU-35S with L-band radars in the wing leading edges. Oopsie.

    In that context, now let’s talk obsolescence. As the RAND Corporation concluded, based on core fighter capabilities – speed, climb rate, agility, range and firepower – the F-35 can’t out-fly, out-run or out-fight even the best fourth-generation fighters. In other words as soon as the opposition neutralizes/defeats this brittle stealth technology, the F-35 is dead meat. And, between the resurrection of L-band radars and all the goodies our potential adversaries are picking out of that RQ-170, the 35 stands to become obsolete before we even get it in our hangars.

    I suppose you read the RAAF’s simulation of a bunch of Superhornets, F-35s and F-22s taking on a gaggle of Sukhoi 27-35s. They even gave the Blue side’s missiles a 100% kill rate. What happened was our side ran out of missiles. The Sukhois got them into dogfights and the 35s were mauled. Then enough Sukhois blew right through our side and took out the low-hanging fruit – the tankers. No tankers, no fuel for the trip home. For our side it was a single-mission air war. You don’t have to shoot down airplanes when their tanks hit “empty.”

  7. I don’t buy the inflation argument.

    If anything … due to declining demographics in the West, private indebtedness, and the impossibility of tightening money without creating a hemispheric/regional economic crisis, I expect we are living in a decades-long lower-demand, lower-growth economy and thus low-inflation economy – at least in Canada, the USA, and the EC.

  8. Our fate was really sealed when the Liberal Government threw Canada’s lot in with the USA via the Ogdensburg Agreement. That was in 1940 -for those of you who keep score, or even care.

  9. Aeneas, re inflation,

    1. Western gov’ts have socialized staggering amounts of private debt over the past decade, plus they have substantial liabilities related to the demographic situation.

    2. All these gov’ts have fiat currencies and have spent recent years engaged in competitive devalutations. Since all the Western gov’ts are doing it at the same time, the “bond vigilantes” who would normally be counted upon to discipline such behaviour have instead been neutralized.

    3. The temptation to keep expanding the money supply to diminish the real value of outstanding debt will, I think, prove irresistable, esp. once economists learn to despise their earlier fears of the now-weakened bond vigiliantes. To see this real-time shift of conventional economists’ mood, follow Brad Delong’s blog.

    4. We will see significant rates of inflation, driven less by “demand-pull” than simply by expansion of the monetary base. It’s a lower-demand, lower-growth economy, just as you said, but with high inflation rather than with low inflation.

    Pretty miserable–at least the Japanese got low inflation with their low growth for the past 20 years. Europe and N.A. won’t be so lucky. I’m not saying there’s going to be hyperinflation. I just think we’ll see a steady dismal 5-10%.

  10. MoS,

    1. Is stealth tech really so brittle? It’s been operational for over 20 years, and I don’t see too many imitators out there.

    2. I’m not sure I would infer too much from the RAAF trial, since most of the planes in the trial were probably not fully outfitted, since the USA and Russia wouldn’t want to tip their hands–especially this would be the case with the US stealth tech. In any case, you never know how much of this stuff is deliberate misinformation.

    3. What is more interesting to me is that the country that held that trial–Australia–is mysteriously still buying F-35’s. Actions speak louder than words?

  11. Roland … I disagree.

    The lowring of demand in the West is the counterforce to any monetary inflation pressures. The rate of deflation due to demographic regression offsets increases in the money supply over the medium-term.

    The West is deflating for this reason – as has been since at least 2001. We have have sectorla inflation since then – mostly in housing, but this too is due to radical demographic shifts in the Western World. This sectoral inflation has hidden and glossed-ver this realitty.

  12. Sorry for sp(s). I get floating images over my typescore when I post.

    Anyway, only the real inflationary pressures in BRIC can drive globalinflation now, but many of these countries are articially devaluing their currencies – to a point. The world is so justifiably worried about deflation in the West, that almost all Central Bankers will avoid raising IRs to avoid it.

  13. …and why does the Harper government continue to mimic a failed American system?
    Why is the Harper government fortifying the image of “ugly Canadian” on a world stage? As a country I fear we have lost a great deal of credibility and are no longer considered benevolent. The possibility of political or Eco retaliation is easily avoidable, but Harper cognitively kicks the hornet nest to promote his narrow ideology.

  14. @ Roland. Yes, Australia is still in – for now. Australia has a strong geopolitical dependency on the U.S., something that hasn’t diminished much since WWII. It wouldn’t be politic to pull the plug on the ’35, especially to be the first of the ‘partner’ states to do that. I think that’s Harper’s dilemma also.

    Is the technology brittle? Sure it is. The Serbs showed that when they shot down one F-117 and hit a couple of others. No aircraft maintains the stealth profile in some 360 degree bubble. Typically the stealth masking is focused on defeating radars in the aircraft’s straight line path. It’s much more detectable from the quarters, sides or rear,. Likewise, if the defenders can force it to evade, maneuver, the party’s over.

    What is stealth, after all? It’s the combined result of design (shaping), materials and electronics systems. Perhaps the biggest part is concealing the engine turbine runs from enemy radars. But that’s why I referenced the RQ-170 drone the Iranians hijacked before Christmas. They forced it to land, largely intact. It was Lockheed’s state-of-the-art stealth drone. It contained stealth shaping (especially for the air inlet), stealth materials and stealth electronics. It was an “oh shit” moment for the American military who wasted no time fretting over “reverse engineering” by Iran’s benefactors, especially Russia and China. The bitch of reverse engineering is that it reveals both vulnerabilities and potential improvements. You can expect to see that embodied in Russia/India’s and in China’s stealth fighters. And think, they didn’t have to spend hundreds of billions of dollars and years of effort in development.

    Here’s something else interesting. Within a week, everyone clammed up. No one has mentioned the incident or the RQ-170 ever since. I’m guessing everyone’s is afraid of how that might impact Lockheed and the F-35.

    Yes it’s a brittle technology because, immediately your adversaries realize it only works against X-band radars, not L-band radars and begin installing L-band arrays in the wings of their interceptors (what? the Russians have already done just that in the SU-35S? OMG!) then you’re left with an aircraft that has sacrificed every essential quality of a strike fighter – speed, climb rate, agility, range, payload – for pretty much nothing except, perhaps, tens or scores of billions of irreplaceable defence dollars.

    There is still a baseline advantage to this immature stealth technology but it’s much less than anyone – the Pentagon, Lockheed, DND or the Harper government – makes it out to be. That’s where you need to take a very hard look at everything you have to give up in cost and performance for that relatively small edge. And we will be doing that assessment but, if Harper has his way, only after the F-35 is in Canadian hangars.

  15. Update – it’s emerging that the F-35 is more vulnerable than I suspected. An outfit called CSO (computer security organization) online reports that America’s aerial refueling tanker fleet is quite vulnerable to cyberwar attacks. The F-35 can’t go anywhere operationally without tankers. No tankers, the F-35 becomes a hangar queen.

    Meanwhile AviationWeek has a report on the F-35s sensors and AESA radar system as convenient windows for cyber attacks to beam malware into the F-35’s computer systems. The high-tech edge of the F-35 is, it seems, a double-edged sword. The same article discloses that hackers, believed to be Chinese, have already stolen thousands of lines of F-35 software code from contractors.

  16. You haven’t arrived to the big leagues until you can show that you can afford to spend the equivalent or more than some defence budgets on military hardware… only to shelve it.

  17. You haven’t arrived to the big leagues until you can show that you can afford to spend the equivalent or more than some defence budgets on military hardware… only to shelve it…

  18. Aeneas, wrt inflation the demographics are a two-edged sword. The very large public liabilities in developed countries, for the pensions and other benefits for an aging population with a falling worker/retiree ratio, form a major incentive to pursue monetary debasement. To be sure, these liabilities are supposedly indexed, but since the mid-90’s every OECD country had their equivalent of the US’ Boskin Commission, tasked specifically with finding methodologies to reduce officially acknowledged inflation rates.

    When combined with the bailouts of the financial sector which have added enormous public debts, monetary expansion should more than offset lowering natural demand.

    I shudder to think what’s going to happen to Canada’s pubic debt once the property bubble ends and CMHC needs to be bailed out.

  19. MoS, so much of the F-35’s capabilities are being kept under wraps, that it’s very hard for anyone on the outside to get a good idea of its likely performance. For example, if it had a way to avoid detection by certain radars, I doubt that the USA would be publicly announcing that fact–better to let rivals underestimate what you’re building. e.g. I remember back in 70’s a lot of disparaging press about the relative performance of the F-15 vs. its Soviet contemporaries. So when I hear all the stuff about the F-35’s disappointing performance, I take it with a grain of salt.

    The USA does fight real wars, and I’m sure they plan to fight some more of them soon. I see that they’re buying hundreds of F-35’s. If the F-35 is trash, it would strike me as perverse even for the Pentagon.

    I do know that the F-35 does not use the same sort of materials as the F-117.

  20. Roland, I think you’re whistling past the graveyard with accounts of magical capabilities cloaked in secrecy. The Americans aren’t publicly announcing its vulnerability to L-band radar. The Australians did that a few years ago and the Russians know it too which is why they’re fitting L-band radars to their new warplanes.

    Ask yourself this, Roland. After Obama prematurely cancelled the F-22 buy Lockheed was counting on, what would it mean if the F-35 met the same fate? This is, after all, America’s main defence contractor. Withdrawal of support from the F-35 is all but unthinkable.

    As for the F-15 I don’t remember anyone disparaging its relative performance against its contemporaries. It was a world-beater in speed, climb, range, payload and agility. The only a/c faster was the Mig25 that would have lasted about a minute in a fight with the F-15. Only years later, as the Sukhoi 27 came out and then morphed into the SU-30 did the Russians field an a/c that could stand up to the 15. That was proven by Indian Air Force pilots who bested their colleagues from Elmendorf flying the F-15.

    I really don’t know where you get these ideas about anyone disparaging the F-18 or the F-15 at their introduction.

    As for the F-35’s deficiencies in fighter qualities – speed, range, climb rate, turn rates, and payload – that was an assessment by the Pentagon’s own love child, the RAND Corporation. The minute the F-35s stealth is neutralized it’s reduced to a sub-par warplane. That’s because so many performance parameters had to be stunted in order to create a stealth capability. It’s not the F-22. That’s the one they got right.

  21. KEvron:

    Unlike Aeneas, I could forgive you your global conquests if you weren’t so kitschy about them. Aren’t you a little embarassed to have taken our surrender at Ogdensburg of all places? Have you ever been to Ogdensburg? The historical high points are the strip malls. Not exacly Versailles or the Compiegne Forest. It’s as if the Brits decided to celebrate Trafalgar with a victory march through the suburbs of Sheffield.

  22. “Aren’t you a little embarassed to have taken our surrender at Ogdensburg of all places?”

    you kidding?! i’m the one who suggested finishing with a swirlie.
    ….hope you don’t still hold a grudge about that.


  23. Hi, MoS,

    The headaches with the F-18 were a common media story back in the late days of the Trudeau regime. There were major delays and cost overruns. Of course in a pre-Wikipedia age the blow-by-blow wasn’t as promptly and lovingly recounted as it is today with the F-35. I’d need a full afternoon and archive access to some major newspapers to cite the chapter and verse.

    The F-18 maintenance contract was a cause celebre in the West after Mulroney gave it to Canadair. It was one the intolerable acts which led to the creation of the Reform Party, with which happy results we can see today.

    Controversies about the F-15 were common in the late 1970’s: questions regarding the survivability of its electronics in a possible tactical nuclear environment, questions as to the wisdom of having smaller numbers of very expensive aircraft, questions as to how it could be maintained properly during intensive operations in a major war. There were plenty of computer, HUD, and navigation glitches which led some observers to wonder whether a more primitive enemy plane might not get the better of it in a real fight. Until a Soviet defector flew out a MiG-25, there were plenty in the West willing to overrate it in relation to US-built fighters. I believe one of the reasons for the rapid introduction of the simpler and cheaper F-16 was the doubt surrounding the F-15. In a way the F-15 got redeemed by the 1980’s advances in computer technology, and it went on to become the foremost air superiority fighter of its time. In the 1970’s, though, this was less apparent.

    I’m not trying to defend the F-35, since of course I don’t have any expertise in air defense. I’m just thinking back on my own memories as a layman following current affairs over the course of the past few decades, and drawing a cautionary conclusion.

    I can, however, safely declare that Peter McKay, as Jeeves once said of Wooster, “is a most pleasant and amiable gentleman, but not intelligent. He is not at all intelligent. Mentally, he is negligible–quite negligible.”

  24. Sorry, Roland, but I beg to differ. I was a working journalist in Ottawa during the NFA competition. I recall well all the contenders – the F-14, F-15, F-18 and Tornado. My favourite was the F-15 because of its superior range. But the competition came out for the F-18 that was already a hit with the US Navy. And we got an incredibly good price on it too because we were the first international order. Northrop/McDonnell Douglas really wanted us aboard.

    To my recollection the 18 came in on budget and performed, as advertised, from the get go.

    Do you recall the era in which this happened? There as a loose parity between Soviet and Western aircraft before the “teens” arrived. They were developed out of America’s Vietnam experience. The US wanted to reclaim air superiority and these twin-tailed, twin-engine, fly-by-wire and intentionally destabilized wonders delivered- in spades. There wasn’t a dud in the bunch. The Sovs went into a dizzying tail chase to catch up with the Mig-29 and SU-27, eventually.

    So, Roland, my recollection of the development and introduction of the CF-18 remains very much at odds with yours.

  25. Now that you’ve got me thinking back, the F-18 went up against the F-16 in the US in a separate “lightweight” fighter competition. Back then it was the Northrop F-17. The 16 won the US competition but McDonnell Douglas and Northrop redesigned the 17 into the F-18 for naval use.

    There was a structural problem with the F-18. Airflow over the large, leading edge extension caused destructive buffeting of the rudders. I believe it was Canada that came up with the astonishingly easy fix – bolting vanes atop the engine intakes. That’s a pretty minor (albeit serious) problem with a really cheap and easy fix.

  26. Thanks for the interesting details, MoS. Obviously you’re better informed than I about the F-18 acquisition.

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