Sunday, 26 August 2012

A Good Source of Information on the F-35 Purchase

If you go to the Galloping Beaver blog, enter "F-35" in the search box and press the Return key (Sorry, that's the "Enter" key. I learned to type on typewriters, you know), you get a series of articles that have good information on the F-35 purchase. Here's a link to what would turn up, sorted by date.

Some highlights from my reading so far:
  1. Canada intended to get the fighters at their lowest price by having them made at the time of peak production. This was to be in 2016, but changes in the American buying plans puts this off to 2021. (Source)
  2. The F-35 is described by the Americans as primarily a ground attack plane. Not patrol, not air superiority, not reconnaissance. It is complementary, in their minds, to the F-22 Raptor, which is for air superiority. Now, this is interesting because the plan for the armed forces is named "Canada First," but what Canada itself needs is something that will patrol the north, in particular, and intercept anything odd coming that way. What the F-35 is best for is a first-strike aircraft that will come in, blow up airfields and radar stations, and allow other aircraft to take over for whatever comes next. Think of it as primarily a second-generation Tornado. (In this role, despite its age, it is kept and valued. It's going to see fifty years of service in some air forces). In other words, buy this plane if the major role of the RCAF is to do what we did in Libya during the revolution there, or what we did in the first Gulf War.
  3. The biggest argument for the F-35 is political. This is what the U.S. is selling, so we pretty much have to buy. (Article making the argument). 
  4. The secondary argument is that this is a Fifth Generation plane that, thereby, makes Fourth Generation planes obsolete. However, knowledgeable people have called the term "Fifth Generation" simply a clever marketing tool. This is an interesting sentence from the Wikipedia article on Fifth Generation Fighters:
    The United States Navy and Boeing have placed the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in a 'next generation' fighter category along with the F-22 and F-35, as the Super Hornet has a 'fifth generation' AESA radar, modest radar cross-section (RCS) reductions and sensor fusion.
    The only fifth generation capability that cannot be fitted onto at least some fourth generation planes, it seems to me, is a truly low RCS or, in other words, "stealth." However, stealth is a relative term, not some all-or-nothing quality, and is likely to become less useful as countermeasures are developed.

    Finally, the true successor to Fourth Generation planes may be, not Fifth Generation, but combat drones. Even those who want to get fighters for now see drones as part of the present requirements as well as the future. If we spend too much on the current purchase of fighters, of course, we will be locked into justifying it and making do instead of having the flexibility to get the X47B or BAE Taranis and whatever follows them in five, ten, or twenty years.
  5. The Department of National Defence has started down a path of slipshod planning for purchases of major equipment, including helicopters, which the F-35 purchase fits into.
  6. The lifetime cost of an F-35 is not what we have been told. First, we should assume a 33-year life span for the F-35, which is much more reasonable than 20. (For comparison, the current plane, the CF18, has been flying with the RCAF since 1982, making it fully 20 years old. We will begin to receive replacements, it has been announced, in 2016, but only 16 per year. So the CF18 will be over 30 when it is retired, even if there are no delays). Add in the current estimates of annual operating and maintenance costs, and the purchase comes to $45 billion, not $25 billion, not $16 billion, and not $9 billion. That math comes from Andrew Coyne of the National Post. Based on Norwegian testimony, the price is closer to $50 billion right now. (See the bottom of that post). This is the number we should be talking about: over $769 million per plane. (In comparison, the Gripen deal that was offered, including maintenance for forty years, was about $92 million per plane, though this figure does not seem to include operating costs).
We need to start talking about what we want the Canadian Armed Forces to do and then start planning on how it can do that. The whole F-35 debate should take place in that context.
  1. Be able to patrol the North? Naturally. This is becoming a new area of world competition, and the United States, for example, still does not accept that the Northwest Passage is Canadian waters rather than International Waters. Fighter planes that need long runways, easily destroyed, are not the best way to approach this.
    (You know, the Gripen, designed by the Swedes who faced a similar problem, is looking better and better to me as I think about a solution to northern defence. It has short take off and landing, on roads if necessary, refuels and re-arms wherever they land from trucks with a four-man team, with a ten-minute turnaround time, has low maintenance costs, low flying costs, ability to take off when snow is on the ground...).
  2. Be able to participate effectively in NORAD? The Soviet Union is gone, but 9/11 showed the potential of other threats in the air. Since we can't defend all of our vast country on taxes provided by a small population, we still need to partner with our big neighbour, and our big neighbour will still insist, for its own safety, that the partnership remain in place. So, yes, fighters of some sort will be necessary for at least the medium term, though this does not necessitate any particular type of fighter.
  3. Be able to participate effectively in NATO? The three functions of NATO, according to Lord Ismay, NATO's first Secretary General, were "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." These functions are all, demonstrably, less important now than they were when NATO was founded, at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. The Germans no longer have an independent military, but are integrated into multinational units for European defence. Problem solved. The Americans are no longer as needed for the defence of Western Europe. The enemy superpower is gone. Its economy is integrating with the European Union's and will become even more integrated, now that it has joined the WTO. The European Union has more wealth and population than the U.S. We haven't had Canadian Forces bases in Europe since 1992. So membership in the club may have privileges, but specific obligations in terms of equipment no longer apply.
  4. Be able to act quickly and decisively in disasters? Yes, certainly. And the scale of potential disasters is much larger than we can currently respond to. If anyone thinks that the 19,500 regular soldiers of the Canadian Forces could respond effectively when the Big One (a large offshore earthquake) and an associated tsunami hits Vancouver and the BC Coast again, he or she is dreaming. At least, we need hospital ships based on the Pacific coast since vital structures like water pipes and St. Paul's hospital will not survive a big shake. Nor could we rely much on the United States in that case, as they would be busy coping with Seattle and Portland. In case of natural disaster, we would need to think about the ability to move people and material on a vast scale to and from the affected area. (I have an article in progress on other kinds of disasters I'd like to have us prepare for). 
  5. Provide humanitarian aid? Oh yes. It raises us in the eyes of the world and our own population.
  6. Peacekeeping? Yes. After all, it was invented by a Canadian. And John Humphrey, a Canadian, wrote most of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We want to do it, and we want to do it a heck of a lot better than we did in Rwanda.
  7. How about sending Canadians into war zones like Kuwait, Libya, and Afghanistan? I think most people rank that lower than the other purposes. We could, if the government of the day saw fit, commit some of the forces and equipment that we buy for other purposes to aid in a worthy effort to turn back invasion or end a civil war, but the type and scale of those commitments should be defined by what we maintain for other priorities instead of foreign expeditions being the raison d'ĂȘtre of the armed forces. Indeed, of the three roles defined for our armed forces by the Canada First Defence Strategy, the international one is last.
So, what kind of capabilities could the armed forces afford if the cost of our fighter planes were halved, or more than halved? What could it buy, and what could it do, and what could it prepare for, with $25 billion dollars over the next 33 years?

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