The Toronto Star – August 17, 2010
The announcement of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to replace the CF-18 has sparked a flurry of debate, some of it ill-informed. The most common misconceptions are listed below, together with our own response to these.
- We don’t need a fighter aircraft. Canada has national interests to protect, and international responsibilities to fulfill. This will not change. The military remains a key instrument of national power, providing a clear demonstration that we take our obligations seriously, whether these involve protection of our sovereignty, peacekeeping operations, fighting terrorism and, yes, fighting a war if necessary. We need to equip our military properly to meet whatever challenges might arise in an uncertain and unpredictable future. The F-35 will serve until at least 2050, and probably beyond. Over that time, Canada will need an air force that can reasonably handle whatever risks and threats may appear. Like fire insurance for your house, you can’t buy it after the fact.
- The F-35 has only one engine. Contrary to popular opinion, the CF-18 was not chosen because it had two engines. Even 30 years ago engine reliability was so good that this was not a significant factor in the selection of our current fighter. Since then, jet engine technology has evolved so much that a single-engine fighter is a viable choice for Canada.
- We don’t need to replace the CF-18 until at least 2017. Why choose now? The 28-year-old CF-18 has recently been updated and will serve capably until 2017, beyond which serious structural problems will arise. A major aircraft purchase usually requires at least five years to complete; the F-35 contract, therefore, needs to be signed by 2012. It is not premature to start the process now.
- The F-35 is too expensive. It is true that the F-35 represents a large defence investment. However, there are significant cost advantages due to the large customer base; at least 3,000 will be sold to a variety of countries. This mass production will reduce Canada’s cost, as will the sharing of the ongoing support costs among the partner nations. Moreover, purchasing aircraft as part of a large group of nations assures interoperability, an important military consideration. Our aerospace industries will also have the potential to compete for worldwide contracts to support this large fleet, providing thousands of high-tech jobs for many years. The return on Canada’s investment will be very impressive indeed.
- Canada could get a better deal through open competition. In theory, an open competition might produce a cheaper contract. The reality is different in this particular case. Mergers of large aircraft companies and the huge start-up investments required to produce a modern fighter severely limit the choices. If there existed another fifth generation fighter with comparable capabilities and costs, within another broad international customer group, perhaps a valid competition could be run. Unfortunately, other potential candidates are fourth generation fighters nearing the end of their operational relevance or small-batch fifth generation aircraft having reduced capabilities. The F-35 manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, has been forced to ruthlessly control both production and support costs to satisfy its F-35 customers, many of whom would cancel their orders should the price become excessive. Furthermore, with so many international customers, F-35 pricing visibility will be very high indeed, assuring a fair price for Canada.
We firmly believe that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter represents the best choice for Canada. The government’s announcement should have included more of the rigorous expert analysis that went into its decision. Ultimately, as with the once-controversial CF-18 selection, Canadians will come to understand the correctness of the decision, and its importance for the future security of our nation.
Retired general Paul Manson is a former Chief of the Defence Staff. Earlier in his military career he was program manager for the CF-18 Acquisition. Retired lieutenant-general Angus Watt is a former Chief of the Air Staff and Commander of Canada’s Air Force who retired in 2009.