By Greg Markey, Postmedia News April 5, 2011
OTTAWA — An American military expert says the Tory government’s planned purchase of 65 F-35 fighter jets comes with an unrealistically low price tag for a plane that he says will not meet the country’s needs.
“You’re getting an underperforming airplane for a huge amount of money,” said Winslow T. Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Centre for Defense Information in Washington D.C.
Winslow, who was in Ottawa Tuesday, at the invitation of the Rideau Institute and Physicians for Global Survival, said the estimated price of $75 million per plane is too low.
“Nobody on this Earth is going to be buying F-35’s in flyable condition at $75 million a copy. That’s not in the cards,” he said.
Winslow said $75 million may be the base price for the aircraft, but not the price to make it operable. In fact, he said that the government’s estimate may not even include the engines.
Winslow said that the Parliamentary Buget Officer’s price estimate, which was between $129 to $148 million per jet, is more accurate but suggested the real cost is closer to $146 million.
Calling the F-35 a “gigantic performance disappointment,” Winslow said the aircraft has sluggish aerodynamics, and its performance as a bomber is average. He said Canada should pursue a “fly-before-you-buy” strategy, where several are aircraft are tested before a contract is signed.
“What I think people should use for the cost of the airplane is the amounts of procurement moneys it will take to get you an airplane in flyable condition. All you need to do is put jet fuel and a pilot in it and fly it away,” he said.
Prof. Douglas Bland, chair of defence management studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said establishing the real “fly-away” cost will take time.
“Anybody that tells you they have the figure should be viewed with some suspicion,” Bland said. “We’ll know what the final figure is going to be probably two or three years down the road.”
Bland said the final price will be determined before a contract is signed.
Ret. Col. Alain Pellerin, of the Conference of Defence Associations, noted that the contract won’t be signed until 2013, and the first delivery won’t be until 2014. He said while the price is high, it will be spread over a long period.
Ret. Gen. Paul Manson was the manager of Canada’s fighter aircraft program when the current fleet of F-18 jets was purchased by the federal government in 1980. He said it was deja vu watching the government work to purchase the latest fleet of fighter jets.
“Back then, many of the same sorts of things were going on. We had people saying, first of all, that we don’t need a new fighter aircraft,” Manson said.
But he said with threats all over the world, Canada needs to step up.
“Canada must do its share in providing the kind of national power, international power, that will deter people from taking aim at our society in various ways,” he said.
Manson said in the current instance, it would be difficult to do comparison shopping. When the F-18 was purchased, six different comparable aircraft were tested. This time, the situation is different: If a similar competition were held now, the government would have to wait 10 years for a fighter jet that could compete with the F-35, he said.
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