Friday, July 16, 2010

Last F35 post until...

Earlier today defence analyst Mercedes Stephenson and yours truly had something of an exchange following my rather blunt critique of some of her comments on CBC. I subsequently posted her rebuttal to my words that she was most generous enough to provide. What follows is an adaptation of my email response to the points included in that note.

Need for a CF18 replacement
Yes, I agree on the need to replace the CF18 fleet as per the needs of the Canada First defence strategy or whatever a new government comes up with. I do think there are other strategic issues emerging that will impact the ability of future conventional forces to operate as they do now (I touched on some in my first F35 post), but all other things being equal Mercedes and I agree here. My issue is not with the F35 per se, but with the lack of a competitive bidding process where other aircraft could be evaluated. I think there is a fair chance that another aircraft may prove more suitable for Canadian needs. However without an open bidding process and associated tender with listed requirements, we cannot know this for certain.

Bidding process
The defence procurement process problems are a bureaucratic issue that a government with the willpower to solve ought to be able to. Competive bidding clearly offers distinct advantages in empirically selecting the best suited equipment for the right price according to clear and public guidelines. Simply skipping bidding, even if not technically dodging a competitive process by acting on a pre-arranged option to buy, seems to me a slapdash and highly suspect way avoiding an overhaul of that system and could lead to its own set of problems. Opposition parties raising this point do not seek to stonewall the purchase of needed equipment for CF for the sake of stonewalling, but a fair accounting of the decision to buy. Something which the public in a democracy is entitled when our government spends our tax dollars on our defence. Further, if we're projecting a 30 year service life out of these planes, we had better be sure we're getting the ideal model.

If the Air Force seems to think the F35 is better for our needs than alternatives, then the rationale needs to be made based on a clear articulation of exactly what Canada needs are from a fighter-strike aircraft based on sound strategy papers. That everyone else is buying them doesn't, to me at least, meet that standard.

We can surely write off an $116 million investment (which is barely the cost of a single airframe without the maintenance costs) on an aircraft that is meant to remain in service for decades if it means we can be certain about our purchase. On that, however, the Liberals also never actually committed us to buying the thing, the money invest was also our buyout as much as our buyin. It was Canada's legitimate option to opt out until now.

Further, this post touched on some of the shortcomings of the pooled procurement process. Cost is a consideration, but cost-effectiveness ought to be based more on the articulated requirements of the aircraft, not the economics of pooled procurement which doesn't help us if the machine proves less than ideal.

Technical considerations
Regarding the argument about cold harsh environments, nearly all modern high performance civilian and military aircraft go through rigorous enviromental testing in extremes of heat, cold, and moisture. I'm aware of nothing inherently special in this respect about the F35.

Regarding the CF18 equivalency, I stated that in terms of range and such, the F35 offers no real improvement over the Hornet. At a glance the CF18 is comparable in range, but with external fuel appears to have a much longer ferry range than the F35 based on published figures. I would speculate that the Air Force personnel are unlikely to publicly contradict the wisdom behind a pending kit purchase by the government. It doesn't help their career. Do we want an equivalent to the CF18 or something better? A 5th generation fighter with a 3rd or 4th generation range doesn't make a great deal of sense to me.

The interoperability argument for the F35 is also a bit unclear to me. The term 'interoperability' is poorly defined in the public realm, and might lend one to think that if we don't buy it, Canadian and US or British or Dutch aircraft and pilots can't work together. This is false. NATO and allied patterned aircraft all operate in fairly similar performance envelopes. Their air forces frequently train together and fight together, examples include exercises like Maple Flag, and combat operations over the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. The avionics, communications and tactical equipment are purpose designed to a compatibility standard and have been so for at least a couple of generations. These systems also change with technology and aircraft refits upgrade them and mistimed upgrades might contribute to interoperability issues - CF18s have had this problem over the Balkans.

I understand the F35 has unprecedented pilot integration into the aircraft systems. If this absurdly makes the F35 unique to the point where it can't interoperate effectively with other allied aircraft and air forces, this makes it something of a liability. Unless of course everyone buys Lightnings...

Right, I'm had my fill of fancy fighter planes for the day.

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