Friday, December 7, 2012

To Buy or not to Fly

The F-35 indecision in Canada is getting heaps of press.  See for a nice survey of some of the pieces.  I have written a piece for a new outlet (well, new to me), but my basic take on this is:
About time!  Not only have the costs become unsustainable but so have the contradictions in the policy.  Saying the short-ranged, single engine plane is for Arctic Sovereignty when it was designed with multilateral military operations mind has always been a problem for the Harper government.  Why need a stealth aircraft which is designed to penetrate airspace to defend the homeland?  Sure, it might be handy but hardly necessary.  And the reality of stealth is $$$.  I remember all the stories in the 1980's and 1990's about special hangars to protect the skins of the US stealth fighters and bombers.  Note that whenever the US uses the stealth bomber, they fly out of the US and never base abroad.  This has everything to do with the difficult maintenance that these kinds of planes require.*
* No, I am not an expert on military aircraft, so take what I say with a grain of invisible salt.
The Harper government should not be criticized for changing its mind, if it indeed does so.  Learning should not be punished.  However, having a messed up procurement process can and should be criticized.  The problems with the F-35 are not just Canadian ones, of course, as the spiral has been driven by American designs, but how the Canadians have dealt with the F-35 seems not to be that different from other flawed processes.

Of course, if the reports are true and Canada turns away from the F-35, this will have a big impact on the rest of the consortium of F-35 buyers: the costs of buying the plane will go up due to economics of scale in reverse AND the costs of defecting from the program go down as fave US ally Canada opened the door by doing first.

I will have more to say about this in various places over the next few days, so let me know what I am getting wrong.

UPDATE: Check out my post at Atlantic Council 

1 comment:

vlad said...

I think what you're trying to touch on and what may be the most important point about this debate is that while it's a nominally a procurement decision, it is ultimately a policy decision. The military has included in its list of requirements, a stealth capability. This is as you've noted not required for the purpose of air to air combat under any realistic NORAD scenario. This is more about having the ability to participate in early bombing of targets in NATO or US led wars outside of NATO. Presumably having this capability matters for Canada's role within NATO and our bilateral relations with the US. Of course, it would be helpful if the government , thought out loud about under what conditions in might use force, what kind of role Canada might play in combat etc. Then we could have a procurement policy that matched a policy from which there flowed a strategy for defence. In Kosovo we faced a 60's vintage Soviet air defence system, in Libya I am not sure there was an air defence system that could be called robust. Does the government want to have the option to play a role in bombing Iran, China, North Korea? I don't know but it would be these kinds of places that a 5th generation fighter would be more suited for. It seems the debate is more about comparing different fighter planes which are all frankly too much plane for what we need for the next 20 years if we simply want to suit up pilots for NORAD and fight small wars against states either lacking a modern air force or any air force at all for that matter.