The Métropolitain

Those F-35s

By David T. Jones on May 18, 2012

Washington, D.C.  There is one sure way to avoid controversy over cost overruns, misestimates, delivery failures and the like for major military equipment—or any significant item of goods or service.

Don’t buy them.

Otherwise, the exercise is problematic.  Attempting to get the best item at the best price with assured delivery schedules and guaranteed performance is fraught with difficulty and usually falls short in one or another particular.

After all, anyone who has remodeled a kitchen, bathroom, etc knows the maxim:  “It will take twice the money and twice the time that you originally estimated.”  And building a new home is even more so.

To be sure, F-35s are not remodeled kitchens or even new homes.  However, some of the same calculation may apply.

First, do you really, truly need a remodeled kitchen?  If all the appliances have failed; if the plumbing is leaking and the electric circuits sparking and tripping circuit breakers when you plug in a coffee pot; if you are putting your foot through rotting floorboards and parts of the ceiling are falling; etc, then your kitchen needs some attention.

But do you need a full remodeling?  Can you repair the plumbing leaks and electric circuits (they would have to be done for a remodeling in any event)?  Cut out the rotted section of the floor?  Replace only the absolutely-must-have appliances (stove, refrigerator).  Get along without luxury items such as trash compacters, garbage disposal, microwave, and/or dishwasher.   It will not be a House Beautiful kitchen, but you can prepare food without risking ptomaine.   

f35.jpgThat assessment, however, may also prompt the more basic question:  Do you need a kitchen (or a modern(ized) fighter aircraft at all?  After all, many individuals live quite comfortably and respectably without kitchens, re the “efficiency” apartments where inhabitants exist with a microwave and a tiny refrigerator.  They may prepare breakfasts and lunches—or just eat out consistently depending upon fast food, cafeterias, and/or sponging off relatives.   And for the military analogy, there are quite a number of states without modern fighter jets—or indeed any combat air force at all, e.g, Costa Rica, Iceland, Panama, etc.  Or any number of third world African, Asian, Pacific Island states.

But if you believe yourselves deserving of a House Beautiful kitchen (and don’t think that an open pit fire in front of your straw hut is sufficient to prepare your family food), then you have a different category of requirement.

And such is the case for Canada in discussing the role of jet fighters as part of its force structure.

Some options. A serious case can be made that Canada has no need for fifth-generation, stealth jet fighters—or any combat fighter.  Such a decision would presumably conclude that CF-18s should not be replaced (and perhaps not modernized further), but the RCAF should simply end that mission—just as it has no heavy bombers.  You just rely on the USAF for combat air cover.

Likewise, a serious case can be made to continue CF-18 modernization as long as desired.  Properly maintained (not inexpensive, by the way), modernization can prolong airframe lifetime to a surprising extent, e.g., Canadian Sea King helicopters which were regarded as ready for replacement 20 years ago are still flying.  B-52H models, brought into service in 1962, are projected to have a lifetime past 2045. In both instances, the planes are older than their crews.

And a serious case can be made for purchasing F-35s.  In this regard, the current imbroglio over who knew what, when regarding price is more politics than finance.  It would be very difficult to identify any/any major weapons procurement ever endorsed by Liberals/NDP.  Outside observers do not know the specifics behind the repeated GOC insistence that its price for 65 F-35 was fixed—regardless of what price escalations might occur elsewhere.  Ultimately, nobody really knows what a final/final price might be, but it will not be cheap.  And, in honesty, with any contract of these dimensions, there will be instances of “waste, fraud, and abuse”—but not surreptitious deposits into numbered Cayman Island bank accounts. 

So Canada’s decision regarding F-35s will say much about its intended image for the 21st century.  F-35s permit Ottawa to play in the “bigs” along with other major national military actors.   F-35s would reinforce the global perception after Afghanistan and Libya that Canadian Forces can at least punch at their weight.  But if not, Canada can slip comfortably back into its previous status of fielding forces capable of light peacekeeping while the effort of coping with major foreign policy challenges goes on without them.