Tuesday, March 27, 2012

F-35 in context I

You know, this whole F-35 business is absurd to the point of hilarious. Here's the government and air force trying to buy the most expensive warplane ever, sight pretty much unseen, from a company so full of itself that it thought it could start production runs on the prototypes and simply retrofit and adjust production to correct bugs on the fly (Why do envision an internal air-frame full of shims and metal tape?)


As far as I can tell the answer to that question comes down to little more than hubris, ego, and a soft and spoiled military culture.

Hubris. The overconfidence displayed by not just the RCAF and the Cons but also military types the world over about this little tiny aeroplane is astounding.  I mean, entire countries (ahem!) bet their air forces and corrupted their procurement processes on this thing, sight unseen and barely flown. Now they're all scrambling as costs spiral out of control to fix problems that anyone with half a brain or awareness of the Titanic could have foreseen.

Where does ego fit into it? Well, you'd be hard pressed to find an argument as to why this isn't like a bunch of men walking onto a car lot and asking the salesmen for the most expensive and flashiest four wheels they've got because nothing less will do. I mean, wow, the salesmen actually managed to sell them something that hadn't even been made yet!

And the soft and spoiled military culture? Even despite recent wars, we've got a military leadership at least that forgets why it exists. It's been a long time since we found ourselves fighting an existential war. 70 years of small deployments and contained combat. The longer and more substantive deployments were Cold War garrisons in Europe, but these thankfully stopped short of actual war, because there wouldn't have been much left to garrison after the first few hours. The wars after Iraq I have been small and ultimately unnecessary.  Afghanistan? Botched early on, but we don't really lose that one (unless the US somehow pisses off Pakistan enough to make them an open enemy) but we don't really win it either. That place will go on being what it is long after the last NATO soldier heads for home. Maybe the Northern Alliance/Karzai crowd will survive a while, maybe they won't. The historical precedence is not good: Russian era, ARVN after Vietnamization are not nice precedents (The US is Afghanizing now and our 'trainers' are really part of that effort, which should tell you something). Ultimately for Canada it does not matter. We were able to rotate battlegroup sized formations through the place regularly for almost a decade and are still support a smaller presence there. Casualties are heaviest for the soldiers, friends, and families that actually bear them, but on the military and country as a whole, they are easily sustainable, much lighter than any previous war where we played a sizable combat role.

In Libya, the air campaign was led by a Canadian officer but of very little risk to Canadian or allied pilots. If Gaddafi or the Serbians in Kosovo had anything close to a peer-level air defence system (say circa Iraq 1991 or better, adjusted for technology), there'd likely have been no air campaign. If Canada were suffering Vietnam era casualty rates, we'd have packed it in long ago as our tiny handful of troops would have suffered unsustainable numbers of dead and wounded.

So what does all this tell us about the F-35?

Well both these wars and the F-35 are symptomatic of the same the problem. Our wars, and the equipment we choose to fight them with are expensive luxuries of safe and secure countries able to pick and choose their battles and now, as we see with the apparent rigging of the procurement process by the politicians and the generals, the very kit they get to fight them with. All on the taxpayers dime of course.

What aircraft like the F-35 do (and you can include drones in this package), well those that work at least, is allow politicians and sky-warriors to do is reduce the risk (to themselves) that comes with offensive operations against defended airspaces, thereby facilitating participation in more wars of choice. This in turn feeds military and political fanclub arguments that privilege martial hard-power responses to international political problems. Have tech, will travel. Ask yourself, how would the great minds in governments and military circles today approached their wars if they were asked to resolve them with the tools of 20, 30, 40 or 50 or even 80 years ago? What would have been the response if hijacked DC-3s were flown into the Chrysler Building or Buckingham Palace?

After the past decade of Afghanistan, and Iraq had the Harperites been in charge, and now possibly Iran, I don't think the armed forces and the politicians can be trusted with super-capable military hardware. But this hardware is also very much a privilege of our time and that is something which belays another problem.

The West is in economic decline, climate change is setting in, and this has implications for the way it wars. More on this later.


kootcoot said...

And of course the "white elephant" in the room is the question of what use is the F-35 for actually defending Canada, from sea, to sea to shining sea? Actually without an AWACS, fuel tankers etc. of NONE!

the Keystone Garter said...

I like China's $30M fighter jets. Lets just buy one hundred of those and budget 3x for service and maintenance. Then let's define a Jet role. I like the ability to win a Naval engagement in our Archipalego against all but top two Navies. Spend savings on Forestry and Grain R+D. Make MPB resistance trees. Winds will push some insects everywhere. Herds should have canning or food drying facilities idled, to be used as a self-contained strategic stockpile; give mobs something to loot. Fast growing bog trees could facilitate carbon sequester into said bog. Has the same effect as buying long-term bonds of poor nations.

Beijing York said...

I sometimes wonder whether despite the outrageous cost and lack of anything that resembles a pragmatic reason for purchasing these fighter jets, Harper doesn't mind seeing it referenced by the media day in and out. It's part of a collection of memes that help transform us from a peacekeeping to warrior nation.

Noah Richler has an interesting article in the latest issue of The Walrus that explores this transformation. Today, I caught a minor news story about the feds approving a national park designation to some military staging ground here in Manitoba. It's all very disturbing.

Anonymous said...

This whole SNAFU is an embarrassment to the hard-working men and women in our air force.