Friday, July 16, 2010

F35 Chronicles: Mercedes Stephenson's Rebuttal

Earlier today, I criticised comments made by Mercedes Stephenson in a CBC article regarding the F35 fighter purchase announcement. Ms. Stephenson graciously privileged me with a rebuttal, despite my harshness in that post and an earlier one involving her. I am happily humbled and grateful to reproduce her note below.

Dear Boris,

Scott kindly suggested that I read your blog and post a response since you're addressing some of the comments I made on CBC today and since he and I had the opportunity to have a very productive discussion earlier today about the F-35.

I think we agree that Canada needs fighter jets, yes? And we agree that the CF-18s will need to be replaced come the end of their life cycle (which after an extensive retrofit) will be between 2017 and 2020? So your issue is with the choice to spend on the F-35? Just want to make sure I'm not taking your words out of context, because I think you may be misinterpreting some of mine.

I'm not here to sell you the F-35. I don't care what model the CF buys as long as it a) fulfills the requirements of the Canada First Defence Strategy - i.e.: it can protect Canadians and provide for Canadian sovereignty and aerospace protection and b) we can afford to get enough to do the job. I think those are reasonable expectations.

Normally I am not a fan of sole source contracting, the exception being when lives are on the line and equipment must be rapidly acquired, as was the case for some equipment in Afghanistan. Generally sole sourcing does not ensure the best value for the tax payer or a transparent process, but frankly the Canadian defence procurement system is such a disaster that even when bids are competed there is no guarantee of transparency or true accountability much less efficiency! My mind goes to the average time for procuring a single piece of equipment as being 15 years.

I am inclined to feel differently about the F-35 for a few reasons: one, like you I believe we must maintain fighters, so we won't even go into the why fighters vs. UAVs stuff - but I will segue momentarily to say that was my point about the arctic. It is a vast distance and very cold - a lot of equipment simply can't fly far, fast under those circumstances and fighters can which makes them ideal for Canadian sovereignty patrols whether its randomly patrolling, pushing back Russian TU-95 Bears (who by the way do carry nuclear payloads, no they're not going to drop them but I'd say it's an indication the Russians take air capability seriously) who regularly like to play around up there, or responding to some kind of emergency or threat. None of this is stuff I'd want to rely on the US to do because we haven't acquired a new capability.

Ok, so back to the F-35, according to the Air Force has equivalent capability for flying long ranges as the CF-18. You’ll have to ask them directly why it is your information conflicts with this. A senior air force source confirmed today that they had equivalent capability to the CF-18, but hey, that could be flawed information. I’d think the Air Force would hopefully look at something like that carefully before buying though. This may mean they require air-to-air refueling to do it, I’m not sure.

The F-35 is the only aircraft available that meets all of the defence requirements for Canada AND that we could afford a sufficient number of. The others either didn’t meet all of the requirements, or we wouldn’t have been able to afford enough of them (we’re getting 65 of the F-35s to replace 79 CF-18s). So you could go out and buy another fifth generation aircraft but you’d actually pay more for it. Why? Because the pooled procurement of the F-35 is significantly bringing down the cost.

Many of our allies – the Brits, Danes, Norwegians, Italians, Turks, Australians and Americans are all making this aircraft their mainstay. As a result, the cost of purchasing through pooled procurement has reduced the cost substantially for a fifth generation aircraft. Ditto for the maintenance on it and spare parts. I’m not sure that spending more money for less aircraft somewhere else would have made sense when no one else has technology as advanced as the F-35, so we would have paid more for a less advanced plane. Elements can always be Canadianized. Sure that might compromise the stealth on a few of them, but if that’s not why we’re buying them primarily in the first place I don’t see it as a big deal and it might bring in some extra dollars for Canadian industry. It will maintain our interoperability with our allies, which would cost us a significant amount to upgrade any other purchased model of plane to anyhow as well. Furthermore because the Liberal government signed us on to this in 2002, we have already invested over $116 million in the R&D on these planes, so walking away from them would have been a straight up loss on that front.

I am aware the F-35s have shortcomings and areas they can and should be improved on. But they are the best plane I think available right now for the most cost effective price, they keep us interoperable and provide important capabilities for national defence and security. I think this is the best option on the table right now and given the history of how long it takes for the Canadian defence procurement system to work and potential political delays with the Liberals already planning to derail this, if we want to have any fighters ready to go in 2017, we need to start the process now.

If I may address some of the concerns you’ve directed at me more personally. If I may clarify: I’m the Vice President of Breakout Educational Network, we’re a registered charitable organization. Feel free to check us out, but by the rules it means we can’t be and are not partisan. In fact we’ve done more analysis of military procurement and how messed up the system is than anyone else out there. In the past some of your readers have left highly inaccurate comments on your blog that seem to be mischaracterization from my bio, I won’t address all of them, but just as an example my Koch Fellowship at the Cato institute far from being evidence of being a militarist… Cato is Libertarian i.e.: they don’t like big money spent on defence… see the book I helped research while there Winning the UnWar (very critical of the War on Terror) in 2003, not 2009.

Thanks for giving me the time and space to comment here.

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