Politics - Federal

F-35 Fighter Jet a Grossly Overpriced Dud

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 07, 2012

If you've been following the Harper government's F-35 procurement controversy, this article in Foreign Policy magazine won't give you much comfort. Calling the Pentagon's F-35 Join Strike Fighter a "calamity", the essay states, "A review of the F-35's cost, schedule, and performance - three essential measures of any Pentagon program - shows the problems are fundamental and still growing."

The projected cost per fighter has almost doubled since development started in 2001 and continues to increase steadily as development moves into the flight testing and modification phase. Worse, based on overruns in the similar F-22, the lifecycle costs are likely to be more than three times the costs of the earlier-generation fighter jets the F-35s are replacing.

Forget the $10 billion discrepancy between the Canadian government's cost to buy the jets and its cost to buy and operate them: the actual operating cost will end up much higher than even the revised estimate.

The F-35 is way behind schedule and way over-budget, but that might be acceptable if the end result was exemplary. Unfortunately, this plane is also shaping up to be a dud.

The design was born in the late 1980s in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon agency that has earned an undeserved reputation for astute innovation. It emerged as a proposal for a very short takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft (known as "STOVL") that would also be supersonic. This required an airframe design that - simultaneously - wanted to be short, even stumpy, and single-engine (STOVL), and also sleek, long, and with lots of excess power, usually with twin engines.

President Bill Clinton's Pentagon bogged down the already compromised design concept further by adding the requirement that it should be a multirole aircraft - both an air-to-air fighter and a bomber. This required more difficult tradeoffs between agility and low weight, and the characteristics of an airframe optimized to carry heavy loads. Clinton-era officials also layered on "stealth," imposing additional aerodynamic shape requirements and maintenance-intensive skin coatings to reduce radar reflections. They also added two separate weapons bays, which increase permanent weight and drag, to hide onboard missiles and bombs from radars. On top of all that, they made it multiservice, requiring still more tradeoffs to accommodate more differing, but exacting, needs of the Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy.

Finally, again during the Clinton administration, the advocates composed a highly "concurrent" acquisition strategy. That meant hundreds of copies of the F-35 would be produced, and the financial and political commitments would be made, before the test results showed just what was being bought.

Saddled with divergent and mutually incompatible design goals, the F-35 tries to be all things to all political players and mostly fails at being well-suited to any of its myriad use cases. It's second-system syndrome writ gargantuan.

Canada's most prudent - most conservative - option at this point is probably to back away altogether from its F-35 purchase agreement, even if such an admission would gall a government that has made its support of the planes and their ballooning costs a matter of pride.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted May 07, 2012 at 17:59:14

I wouldn't even mind so much if the government and the Armed Forces could manage to put together a single coherent argument for why we need this plane. They have plenty of arguments (some quite valid) as to why we need new planes; they have, as yet, not offered a single defensible argument for why we need this one.

I believe, always have, in a strong, spirited and mission-capable Canadian Forces. The F-35 isn't going to help any of that. That's the most troubling thing of all - we're going to make this gigantic expenditure, and end up no more mission-capable than we were before we spent.

Comment edited by Tybalt on 2012-05-07 17:59:42

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted May 07, 2012 at 23:15:08

I'm really impressed at how little of the American F-35 scandal has bled over into Canada. They're calling it a "flying piano" and "the jet that ate the Pentagon". The F-22, for it's part, is in the middle of a scandal for causing hypoxia during manoeuvres.

One might ask why our country needs so many "cutting-edge" fighter jets? When was the last time we went to war with a country who had an air force to speak of? Iraq? Libya? Afghanistan? All three might have had trouble matching planes with Hamilton's Warplane Heritage Museum. Who are we expecting to go to war with for which CF-18s wouldn't be "enough"? The F-35 and others like it are designed for fighting advanced industrial nations - generally those more than able to simply develop their own supersonic stealth fighters in response (some already have). All this accomplishes is escalating an arms-race and dumping the last generation of military hardware out to despots in the developing world.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted May 09, 2012 at 15:18:52 in reply to Comment 76582

Who are we expecting to go to war with for which CF-18s wouldn't be "enough"?

Jets are going to be needed to help maintain arctic sovereignty. The CF-18s are easily costing more in maintenance than they're worth by now. So sure, we need new fighter jets, I won't argue that.

These aren't the ones we need though. These things have POS written all over them.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted May 08, 2012 at 02:24:25

The problem with the current CF-18s is that they've reached their ceiling in terms of flight hours on the airframe. Supposedly most, if not all, have stress fractures which makes it impossible to perform high-speed manouvres. I don't believe that anyone is currently building CF-18s any more, so there would be no outlet for us getting them, aside from buying used - which hasn't worked so great for us in the past (the British subs we bought are a shining example).

I'm totally in favour of upgrading our air fleet. It's old and needs replacement. However, I am not pleased with the massive cost overruns. However, hyperbole in this article such as "the actual operating cost will end up much higher than even the revised estimate." without any stats to back it up make it less believable.

Another problem is that we've sunk over $1B into this project. To walk away now would have a large outcry from the Conservative base and may have the average citizen ask why we sank so much into it have nothing to show. True, it may be a very expensive lesson to learn, but the larger effect too is that there will be lost revenue from building the components locally, the other nations using the parts we build, and so on.

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By Raptor1 (anonymous) | Posted May 08, 2012 at 07:20:14

Every argument that the JSF Team has put forward, and which so many nations have bought into, as to why the F-35 is the ONLY correcy choise is utter nonsense, and history has proven it out - Affordable?...Yeah right. Interoperable?... What American aircraft ISN'T interoperable? Relevant to today's wars?... Gimme a break; the F-22 was thrown under the bus for being irrelevant because it hasn't fought against our current enemies who, by the way, are either already being subjected to B-52/B1-1/A-10/F-15/F-16 JDAM attacks while they're cowering in caves (Afhanistan), or who can't stage a legitimate defense against even a small-scale air assault (Liby), let-alone an assault by the likes of an F-22 and B-2 strike package. How is the F-35 gunna have ANY relevance when it's asked to go plinking tanks or infantry and you can't use it because noone wants to risk their $150Mil aircraft? - Especially given the fact that WHEN we face a real IADS, the only thing capable of getting in there so the F-35 CAN be relevant is its "irrelevant" sibling, which thanks to the JSF crew, is gunna be over-tasked protecting THEIR "ass"ets. Pathetic.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted May 08, 2012 at 08:19:22 in reply to Comment 76590

Well, I agree with some of your points, but not all.

The $150M price tag per fighter - at current costs anyway, is not a reason people would be afraid to put them out into combat. The estimates (based on a very brief search on the Net) says that in 1977 dollars, the CF-18s we have were about $35M each. now that they are almost 40 years old, I'd say that's a good ROI (another brief search of inflation calculators shows that it would be about $135M in today's dollars). So, that's a moot point. Because we have a history of buying fancy stuff and keeping it for long periods of time, that seems OK.

@Ryan: Again, there's no sources for your claims that the costs would be significantly more for the F-35 than for the current CF-18. We're going to hit a wall soon anyway with the CF-18s much like the Sea Kings - McDonnell Douglas is going to stop making parts, then we have to pay more to get them scratch-built for us, and then we're paying more to keep them in service than they are worth.

I'm not a fan of the Raptor since it's primarily an air to air fighter, but we need a true multi-role fighter since we can't afford to buy anything else. Also, the O2 problems with pilots is something that isn't worth messing with. Also, are they still making F-22s? Couldn't find anything conclusive on the Net.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted May 09, 2012 at 15:32:51 in reply to Comment 76596

@Ryan: Again, there's no sources for your claims that the costs would be significantly more for the F-35 than for the current CF-18.

To achieve stealth it is covered in a very thin and expensive coating. Even the smallest nick can essentially disable the jet's stealth capabilities. This is the faberge eggs of fighter jets, it IS going to cost more.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted May 09, 2012 at 21:48:01 in reply to Comment 76711

Right, which is why the adjusted cost of the CF-18 of $135M compared to the $150M is acceptable to me.

I believe that you're oversimplifying the stealth thing though.

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted May 10, 2012 at 09:23:04 in reply to Comment 76720

I believe that you're oversimplifying the stealth thing though.

Ya, obviously. It is difficult to explain the science of stealth coatings in three sentences, but that is the gist. The coating itself requires maintenance.

Do a bit more research and you'll discover a myriad of problems with these stealth coatings... and the F-35 itself. According to most unbiased reports it is a plane that tries to be everything to everyone and fails at most of it while costing a lot.

And it is being presented as our only choice which it is not.

The plane is suspect (to say the least), the procurement process was a joke, the numbers are fraudulent and the government is lying about the whole thing. Why would anyone support buying these things? Anyone that does should lose the right to complain about incompetent government and wasted tax dollars ever again, because this is a classic case of both.

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By Unhappy Taxpayer (anonymous) | Posted May 10, 2012 at 03:56:17

The carrier version can't even land on a carrier as the tail hook is too close to the rear landing gear which doesn't allow the hook to catch the cable. The STOVL version burns so much fuel and it's vertical landing system takes up so much room in the fuselage that it's range and ordinance load is compromised. Single engine failure is a guaranteed loss of the aircraft at the current estimate of $300M a copy. The jack of all trades fighter good at nothing. It's stealth capability is inferior to the F-22 and China's J20. Carrying the amount of ordinance on a typical CF-18 can only be accomplished by mounting them on the wing pylons as the internal bays have limited capacity. Of course with ordinance on the wings you're not stealthy anymore. With the new digital VHF radars that are operated by potential foes, these "stealthy" aircraft are no longer stealthy. Too many issues with the F-35s and not enough patience to keep on writing about it.

I hope they don't buy these lemons.

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