Michael Byers & Stewart Webb op-ed on the F-35: The plane that keeps on billing
October 30, 2012
“If you went out and bought yourself a new minivan and you wanted to drive it off the lot, you wouldn’t calculate the gas, the washer fluid, the oil and give yourself a salary to drive it for the next 15 or 20 years.”
That was Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s response to Michael Ferguson in April, after the Auditor-General used “life-cycle costs” to calculate the full impact that buying F-35 stealth fighter jets would have on the federal treasury.
But buying an F-35 is nothing like buying a minivan. Nobody buys a new car in the expectation that key components — engine, windshield, electronics — will need to be replaced or upgraded within a few years, while still perfectly functional.
Any F-35 aircraft, serving in any air force in the world, will continuously be upgraded through a series of stages called “blocks.” According to a Lockheed Martin information package posted on the Internet by the Norwegian government, the F-35 fleet will finish its development at the end of Block 7 in mid-2021.
Just two months ago, the Department of National Defence indicated that Canada’s 65 aircraft will be acquired over the period between 2016 and 2022.
Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35, admits that it has only a “notional” outline of the content of the blocks. Many of the upgrades will be to the 9.5 million lines of computer code that are still being written for the F-35, but others will be upgrades to the hardware of the aircraft itself. For instance, Lockheed Martin foresees that Block 6 will include canopy extensions and improvements to the range and propulsion of the aircraft — in other words, new engines.
The upgrades will continue to be made throughout the operational life of each individual F-35. Canada’s Department of National Defence admits that such “follow-on-development” will occur and that the F-35 will “continuously and regularly [be] modified to incorporate leading technologies.”
The follow-on-developments, which are always subject to change, are voted upon by all of the countries purchasing F-35s.
The voting process is based on the number of aircraft that each country purchases. Since the United States plans to purchase approximately 2,450 of the planned 3,100 aircraft, it will have majority control on every upgrade decision.
Canada, with its fleet of 65 aircraft, will be virtually powerless when it comes to voting outcomes. Yet it will come under pressure to accept its allies’ decisions — and to pay its share of the costs.
It is true that Canada could opt-out of the upgrades on a case-by-case basis. But if Canada does not sign onto all of the upgrades, it might lose out on the full interoperability of its F-35s with those of other countries — with interoperability being one of the aircraft’s major selling points. In addition, Canada would not have the “best and most advanced” planes that Mr. MacKay keeps talking about.
It is also true that the CF-18 fleet was upgraded recently, but those were end-of-life upgrades to ensure that the already three-decade-old fleet remains operationally capable until retirement. They included new GPS, new mission computers and the ability to drop precision-guided bombs. Canada was not required to upgrade engines, canopies or other key components.
According to both the Auditor General and the Parliament Budgetary Office (PBO), costs for the F-35 will be much higher than what the Department of National Defence has publicly estimated. The PBO estimated the full cost to be $29.3-billion, including upgrade costs of $3.9-billion.
The PBO also noted that the U.S. Department of Defense had not published anything on its upgrade strategy, and that the upgrades to Canada’s planes may have to be made at Lockheed Martin’s main F-35 factory in Forth Worth, Texas — thus creating American rather than Canadian jobs.
Peter McKay was wrong: Some life-cycle costs do matter. This is not about fuel and salaries, but rather about aircraft that will remain unfinished for years — and cost an indeterminate amount of money to complete.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Stewart Webb is a research associate of the Salt Spring Forum and a visiting research fellow at the Rideau Institute.