F-35 Testimony to Canada's House of Commons
By: Winslow Wheeler | January 20, 2011
In December, I was asked by the Standing Committee on National Defence in the Canadian House of Commons to testify on Canada's purchase of the F-35. I was unable to appear in person but submitted - in early December - a written statement that I am now permitted to release.
As a non-Canadian, I was reluctant to offer specific recommendations; accordingly, my testimony focused on three questions: 1) What will Canada’s F-35As cost?; 2) What will Canada obtain for that expense?, and 3) Is there a good reason to wait?
The answers to the first two questions are unknown to Canada. Those answers are also unknown to the United States. Some will argue that [U.S.] Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates is exercising the right precaution by suspending F-36B production and proceeding with the F-35A and C. He is not; just like the Canadians, he is proposing that the government start purchasing the F-35A and C now, and find out what the actual cost and performance for the aircraft is later. We know what the result will be; we have done the same thing many times in the past, and our defenses have suffered for it.
My explanation to the Canadians follows; I believe it is also appropriate to the US.
Canada’s Next Generation Fighter Aircraft
to the Standing Committee on National Defence House of Commons Parliament of Canada
Vice-Chairmen Bachand and Wilfert and Members of the Committee, I very much appreciate your invitation to appear before your committee; I regret I cannot be there, but I ask you to consider my evidence and views regarding Canada’s acquisition of the F-35A for your nation’s defense needs. I also very much appreciate Vice-Chairman Wilfert’s reference to my work on the F-35 in his remarks on the floor of the House of Commons.
As a non-citizen of Canada, I am extremely reluctant to presume to offer you advice on how to proceed in Canada on such a controversial and expensive purchase. Instead, I shall pose three questions I urge you to consider.
The answers to two of my questions are currently unknown to me (and to you) for the simple reason that they are not now knowable. Proceeding with the sale without the answers can result in the same ruinous trend in Canada’s armed forces as has been occurring in America’s: significantly smaller and older defense forces at greatly increased costs. That should make the answer to my third question obvious.
My questions are –
1. What will Canada’s F-35As cost?
2. What will Canada obtain for that expense?
3. Is there a good reason to wait?
What will Canada’s F-35As cost? Canada’s Memorandum of Understanding described in testimony before your committee asserts CAD$9 billion will buy 65 F-35As and various initial logistics, simulators, spare parts, weapons, and more. The unit purchase price for each aircraft officially described to you in testimony is “low-to-mid $70M per aircraft.”
The American public does not know how much our own Air Force will be paying for F-35As. Even our Air Force does not now know the ultimate price. I fail to understand how Canada can rely of the figures testified to you.
This month, the U.S. Defense Department is again reviewing the many problems in the F-35 program, including the software problems that pertain to the A model. New, higher cost estimates based on these and related issues will soon be available. But even those higher costs will not be the end of F-35A cost increases. Where and when they will stop is not now known.
The F-35 program is still at the very early stages of its “developmental” (laboratory) testing. It is unknown what additional problems will be uncovered. We can only be sure that new issues will turn up. They always do, and the history of this program makes it painfully clear it is not exempt from history.
The “operational” tests (combat realistic tests involving military service pilots and technicians) will not begin in the United States until 2016. More problems and issues are sure to be uncovered by these more rigorous tests; the cost and schedule impacts of them are also unknown.
President Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (here called the “Deficit Commission”) has compiled a list of “illustrative savings” in defense spending to help our federal government achieve fiscal restraint. One of those recommendations is to cancel the short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) model of the F-35 for the Marine Corps and to significantly reduce purchases of the Air Force and Navy variants. Other recommendations made to the Deficit Commission have been to terminate the entire F-35 program. Very clearly, after the U.S. Defense Department announces the latest round of F-35 cost increases, schedule delays and perhaps even production reductions, there may be more of the latter imposed by Congress and the deficit reduction process.
As someone who worked on Capitol Hill for over 30 years (including on the Senate Budget Committee), I do not see how the F-35 program can escape significant reductions in American budget deliberations. Termination of the entire program does not appear likely in 2011, but as the program continues to reveal itself as a failure, it is very likely to be seriously considered in the future.
As you know, several of the other allied nations committed to buying the F-35 are reconsidering either the timing or the extent of their purchase, or both. They will likely be more announcements on this after the U.S. Defense Department releases new price increases and schedule delays.
The precise impact from all of these factors on Canada’s cost for the F-35A is not at all clear, but clearly it will be a negative impact.
I also urge caution in considering any “unit cost” described to you. In this country, advocates cite various figures, all of them misleading. The gimmicks include excluding important parts of the airplane, such as the engine (“non-recurring fly away cost”), excluding all development costs (“fly away cost”), using obsolete dollars that understate the contemporaneous cost (“base year” dollars), and - in your case – using American, not Canadian, dollars. There are other tricks that can be hard to unravel; I encourage you to thoroughly research any unit costs cited to you.
I can guarantee to you, however, that the unit cost Canada will pay for a complete, operational F-35A will be well in excess of $70 million - even taking into account whatever exclusion of American costs to develop the aircraft your government may be able to negotiate.
If and when Canada signs an actual purchase contract for F-35As in 2014, as I understand is currently planned, the real question is what multiple of CAD$70 million will Canada have to pay? I do not believe it unreasonable to expect a multiplication factor of two.
Finally, what will be your costs to operate this aircraft? In January 2010, the U.S. Navy estimated the cost of operating F-35C’s to be 62 percent higher than operating its current F-18A-Ds and AV-8Bs. New operating costs for the F-35 are now being discussed inside the Pentagon; the cost is, of course, going up. Even the lesser A model will be a very large increase in operating costs over your CF-18s. It would not be unreasonable to expect the flying hour costs to double.
What will Canada’s F-35As cost? Neither you nor I currently know, but it is certain that the costs being cited to you now are the “buy-in” costs. Real costs, when your government negotiates an actual contract and as the program goes through its life cycle, are sure to be an unpleasant surprise to you.
What will Canada obtain for that expense? The same themes apply here. Canada, and the U.S., will not know what F-35A combat performance really is until after all testing. The most rigorous American tests (“operational”) do not even begin until 2016. Until those tests are completed, you, like us, have only incomplete results and promises from people with vested interests to listen to. The aircraft your government wants to start taking receipt of in 2016 will come to you with only partly explored performance characteristics.
Most of the performance promises I have read in the official testimony to your committee come to you without empirical validation; some of them are completely unsupportable.
Much of the “Fifth Generation” salesmanship of the F-35 to you centers on “stealth.” The various negative trade-offs to obtain “stealth” seem to be ignored, and its actual characteristics have not been fully described to you in the testimony I have read.
Far from an ability to fly anywhere “unseen,” stealth limits the ability of some radars to detect the F-35 at some angles to lesser distances. In the presence of some radar types, some of them quite old designs, stealth aircraft can be detected (“seen”) routinely. At angles other than nose-on or around the “waterline,” stealth aircraft can have a significantly larger radar return than the hummingbird and insect sized returns that are typically described.
The above assumes the stealth characteristic performs as designed, but that is usually not the case. My work at the U.S. Government Accountability Office on stealth systems made it clear to me that not a single U.S. stealth aircraft had lived up to its original detectability promises, and the F-35 looks to be no exception. Just how detectible, or un-, the F-35 will be will only be known when a combat loaded aircraft is flown in the presence of operating threat radars, now available on the market and elsewhere. Models of the aircraft on stationary laboratory test stands will generate data more applicable to advertising brochures than what Canadian Air Force pilots will need to know if they face a competent air defense in future combat.
In the Kosovo air war in 1999, the Serbian air defenses proved that stealth aircraft need to be acutely aware of the radar threats they face: one U.S. F-117 “stealth” aircraft was shot down by radar assisted defenses; a second F-117 was sufficiently damaged that it did not fly in combat again.
As combat aviation designers and engineers can tell you, there are also significant trade-offs to obtain stealth. Cost is just one. The F-35’s stealth features build into the aircraft weight and drag so severe that a hugely powerful engine gives the F-35 less rapid acceleration than American F-18Cs or F-16Cs, according to the data I have seen. The combination of the F-35’s considerable weight and its small-ish wings means it has a “wing loading” (and as a result maneuverability) roughly equivalent to an American F-105 fighter-bomber of the Vietnam era. The F-105 “Lead Sled” was notorious for its inability to defend itself over North Vietnam during the Indochina War.
American experience with the F-117, B-2, and now the F-22 shows that stealth imposes a huge penalty on the aircraft’s ability to get into the air and fight. The considerable time and effort needed to maintain the stealth feature means lower “mission capability” rates. In the first Gulf War against Iraq, F-117s flew, on average, less than one sortie per day. In the Kosovo Air War, individual B-2s flew sorties to Serbia less than once every five days. Mission capable rates as low as 61 percent have been publicly reported for the F-22 five years after its initial operational capability was declared in 2005. The B-2’s mission capability rate is reported as low as 55 percent. If the F-35 breaks this pattern, it will be the first stealth aircraft to do so. Advocates like to say you can have more capability from fewer fifth generation aircraft; in fact, you will need more of them, just to get a reduced number into the air.
Counting all forms of logistics costs, including contractor supplied logistics, data available to me shows that an F-22 costs more than three times the cost to operate an F-15E. No one should be surprised if the same ratio pertains to F-35As and CF-18s. There is a potentially devastating effect of this high maintenance cost beyond affordability. It can reduce the funding available to train pilots in the air. Precisely that has happened in the U.S. Air Force with the F-22. With pilot skill being the all important determinant of success in air combat, it is a huge penalty to pay.
In sum, when you put aside all the buzz words, such as “fifth generation” and “stealth,” and look at what you will actually get in an F-35, the high cost begins to look all the more unaffordable.
Is there a good reason to wait? Being in a hurry has consequences. Like your proposed purchase of F-35s in 2014 before all testing is completed and all costs are known, the United States has been rushing to “buy” before we “fly” for decades. It has been a disastrous practice, especially for our Air Force.
Since 2000, Congress and American presidents have funded the non-war portions of the U.S. Air force budget with $320 billion over and above what it would have received if the Air Force budget had been allowed to grow only with inflation; “base” (peacetime) appropriations increased by 43 percent. During the same 2000-2011 period, the number of active and reserve American fighter and bomber squadrons went from 146 to 72, a decline of 51 percent. This is not a smaller, newer Air Force; it is a smaller older Air Force. According to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, our aircraft are now about nine years older, on average, and at historic highs of about 23 years.
This decay in our equipment inventory is a direct result of new aircraft cost growth above the rate of growth in the U.S. Air Force budget. A major factor in that unrestrained growth is our penchant for committing to new programs before we know what they will actually cost – and before we know how well, or poorly, they will perform. We have been making decisions on the basis of poorly supported “buy-in” promises for cost, schedule, and performance. The only way out of this syndrome is to better understand the future consequences of our contemporary decisions: A challenge that faces Canada on the F-35 in a direct and meaningful sense.
Of course, you are being told there is reason for deciding now. Your CF-18s are wearing out, and you have industrial inducements to commit now to the declared future wave of aviation. Virtually all of NATO faces a similar combat aviation modernization problem and has been offered similar inducements. However, others are beginning to take a more cautious approach. More aware than any of the possible downsides of F-35 procurement, the U.S. Navy is keeping alive its F-18 production line, and some there may be beginning to look at alternatives to the naval variant of the F-35. In the U.S. Air Force, officials are assessing the cost of prolonging F-16 service, and some are even talking more seriously about purchasing new models of the F-16 and F-15.
As you know, some of the foreign partners for the F-35 are having second thoughts, including in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Denmark, and perhaps others. In Australia, a vocal minority strongly opposes the F-35 purchase. It would seem that only Israel, which will basically get its F-35s financed by the U.S., is willing to make a new commitment – and Israel’s initial consignment is much smaller than anticipated just a few years ago.
• The costs of owning and operating the F-35A are large and growing, but the ultimate endpoint is unknown.
• If every official promise is kept for the F-35A’s physical characteristics, its performance on fundamental measures will be quite modest. Despite the embellishments of “fifth generation” monikers, the ultimate performance characteristics will not be fully known to you until after you have committed large resources to it – under your government’s current plans.
• All around you, others are hedging their bets, if not altering their commitments regarding this airplane. Nonetheless, you are being told to forge ahead and to ignore the warning signs.
I have observed the defense establishment in the United States behave as foolishly as you are being urged to now. The result for us has been an aging, shrinking force at drastically increasing cost. There is good reason not to rush.