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After two and a half years of political dogfighting on and off Parliament Hill, the federal government rebooted its procurement of new fighter jets on Dec. 12, potentially opening the door to aircraft other than its preferred Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
A week earlier, rumours had exploded that the proposed acquisition of the conventional A variant of the F-35 had been scrapped. However, senior officials from the Department of National Defence (DND) and Public Works & Government Services Canada (PWGSC) insist that the so-called fifth generation F-35 stealth platform is still a viable option for replacing the current fleet of Boeing CF-18 Hornets.
In a background technical briefing, officials stressed that the basic acquisition cost of 65 aircraft had always been around $9 billion, which was confirmed by an independent KPMG audit commissioned in September at a cost of $643,535. The audit was the government’s response to allegations by Auditor General Michael Ferguson that DND had mismanaged its selection of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). More embarrassing was Ferguson’s charge that DND had manipulated the numbers used to justify its mid-2010 decision to sole-source the purchase with Lockheed Martin, through an agreement with the U.S. government. There was a lack of timely and complete documentation to support the procurement strategy
decision, Ferguson said.
Having aggressively disputed similar allegations by Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Kevin Page, Ottawa subsequently froze funding and referred the contentious program to a new secretariat overseen by a committee of deputy ministers. But DND, dismissing Ferguson’s allegation that it had not exercised due diligence, said its numbers were appropriate for the 2001-2011 period covered by his audit.
Ferguson suggested that the RCAF might have to scale back the already-reduced number of aircraft it planned to operate, or even reduce flying hours. Failing that, the government would have to increase the program’s budget or divert funds from other departments. Unless there is a suitable replacement, Canada will lose its fighter jet capability and, consequently, its ability to carry out domestic and international missions, he warned.
Completed two months ahead of a Jan. 31 deadline, KPMG’s audit was based on information provided by DND. It confirmed an acquisition cost of $8.39 billion, including $87.4 million for each aircraft, with the balance accounted for by infrastructure, armament and other related direct costs. That acquisition total pretty well dovetails with what the government had been saying all along.
But overall lifecycle costs of buying, operating, maintaining – and eventual disposal – now are projected at $44.82 billion, compared with the original forecast of about $25 billion for an initial 20-year cycle and the PBO’s of more than $30 billion over 30 years. The higher number cited by KPMG is predicated on a 42-year life cycle that would include 30 years of flight operations.
That tally includes the acquisition costs, as well as $491 million in development funding contributed by Canada as a Tier 3 partner since it bought into the multi-national JSF program in 1997. Operating costs over 42 years are projected at nearly $20 billion, and maintenance and overhaul at $13.3 billion. Some $2.6 billion more would cover contingency costs such as shifting exchange rates and inflation, and it would cost $43 million to dispose of the F-35.
An additional $982 million would be required to replace aircraft lost to crashes and other causes. Discussions with allies indicated that it is reasonable to expect to lose two to three aircraft for every 100,000 fleet flight hours.
The officials declined to speculate on how long it might take to replace the CF-18s, the first of which entered service in 1982 after a protracted selection process. One said it would be months, not years before the government decides on a procurement strategy.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, who met with reporters after the briefing, evidently felt obliged to repeat in their carefully-scripted remarks that no money had gone toward acquisition yet. Ambrose had also reiterated that point several times on Dec. 11 during Question Period in the House of Commons.
The ministers were joined by Michelle d’Auray, Deputy Minister of PWGSC, who said the market analysis the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (which began life as the JSF Secretariat) is planning will involve engagement with the aircraft manufacturers and be overseen by an independent panel of policy and financial experts.
The next step is a full review of options, Ambrose said. We have hit the reset button and are taking the time to do a complete assessment of all available aircraft. . . .The Government of Canada will not proceed with a decision to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft until all steps . . . are completed by the secretariat.
The prospect of other contenders represents a considerable backpedal for MacKay who – two years ago in a teleconference call from Fort Worth, Texas, where he visited the F-35 assembly line – dismissed Opposition politicians’ clamour for competitive bids as disingenuous. It would be akin to hitting restart, he said, and would cost Canada its preferred place in the program. We are firm in pursuing this course of action in purchasing this aircraft, which will accrue maximum benefits to the air force, the aerospace industry, and to Canada.
The most talked-about challenger for the title of Canada’s next fighter jet is the Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet, which is a 25 per cent larger and more capable platform than the CF-18, despite the similar nomenclature, and which requires only a few hours of transition training.
Twenty-four Super Hornets were purchased by the Royal Australian Air Force, with 12 of them pre-wired on the production line for conversion to electronic warfare EA-18G Growlers. In August 2012, Australia announced it would proceed with converting those 12 Super Hornets to radar-jamming Growlers, complete with new sensor-suites that enable them to function not only as fighter/bombers, but also as electronic warfare aircraft in increasingly net-centric theatres of operation. Both the Growler and the Super Hornet have the same air-to-air refuelling equipment as the legacy CF-18.
An empty Super Hornet tips the scales at 14,552 kilograms versus the F-35’s 13,300 kg, but loaded weights of 29,937 kg versus 22,470 kg highlight the Boeing’s carrying capacity. And, while it is also dimensionally larger (18.31 metres versus 15.67 m in length, with a wingspan of 13.6 m versus 10.7 m), it also has a greater range, 2,346 kilometres versus 2,220 km, and its top speed of 1,900 kilometres per hour is only 30 kph slower. However, the F-35’s service ceiling is believed to be greater at 18,299 m, compared with the Super Hornet’s stated 15,000 plus. As a weapons platform, both have one 25 millimetre cannon, but the Super Hornet carries more than three times as much ammunition and the Boeing has 11 external hardpoints compared with the F-35’s four internal points, and seven external hardpoints.
Other possible contenders to replace Canada’s aging CF-18s include the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale C, both twin-engine aircraft, and the single-engine Saab JAS 39 Gripen. While some have an edge in specific categories – the Typhoon’s service ceiling and top speed were the best, the Rafale carried more and bigger weaponry – the overall packages simply could not stand comparison at the time, and unit costs were uncertain because of relatively low sales numbers in their home markets.
Officials declined to speculate on how long the process to replace the CF-18s might take, but one suggested that further life-extension projects would likely be required to cover any operational gap. MacKay echoed that, saying he had been advised by LGen Yvan Blondin, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, that the planes can be made operationally viable for another 10 to 15 years.
According to d’Auray, the current timeline on the F-35A project shows a six-year development phase ending in 2016, setting the stage for aircraft deliveries to start almost immediately, and finish by 2023. Disposal of the oldest aircraft would begin in 2047 with the last one scheduled for 2052 – by which time DND would have begun operating its next generation of fighters. There is already speculation in U.S. military circles about a sixth generation platform, but details are understandably vague at this stage.
Released along with the KPMG audit was an Industry Canada review of Industrial Regional Benefits (IRBs), always a key element of major defence procurements. It confirmed that IRBs from the Lockheed Martin program would amount to $9.8 billion. It also showed that as of early summer, 72 Canadian companies had won contracts worth $438 million.
The future of those IRBs is uncertain, if another aircraft is selected over the F-35, but a Lockheed Martin executive warned last spring that Canada could lose business. Right now, we will honour all existing contracts, said Steve O’Bryan, vice president of F-35 program integration and business development at Lockheed Martin, in a published interview. After that, all F-35 work will be directed into countries that are buying the airplane.
Having never finished an engineering degree (probably a service to aviation, he says), Ken Pole has had a lifelong passion for things with wings. The longest-serving continuous member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa, Ont., he has written about aerospace in all its aspects for more than 30 years. When not writing, Ken is an avid sailor, diver and photographer.