Hudson on the Hill
In October 2010, Sheila Fraser, Canada’s auditor general of the day, warned that the Department of National Defence plan to acquire new “very complex and complicated” frontline fighters carried with it considerable risk – as well as an obligation to mitigate that risk. Fraser wasn’t being prescient; she was simply echoing, albeit from a more reasoned perspective, an increasingly common concern about what had become a procurement millstone for DND and, by extension, a political one for the government.
Pundits opined that the government’s decision to sole-source 65 Joint Strike Fighters, the F-35 Lightning IIs from Lockheed Martin, could become an election flashpoint, however, the JSF saga seemed to fall off the public radar as the election came and went in May 2011, yielding the Conservatives’ first parliamentary majority.
With the next election set for 19 October by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s own legislation, the government faces relentless Opposition in the House of Commons. But rather than making a decision that may cost it votes, the government is leaving the millstone in the custody of the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (NFPS), which it set up in early 2012.
Overseen by a committee of deputy ministers, the Secretariat was tasked with the review, oversight, and coordination of the implementation of a plan to ensure that the Royal Canadian Air Force “acquires the fighter aircraft it needs to complete the missions asked of it by the government, and restore confidence of Parliament and […] Canadians in the process that will be used to replace the CF-18 fleet.”
If anything, the now three-year-old “plan” seems to have evolved into a holding pattern for indecision even as the government depends on its majority to force an extension of the RCAF mission against Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
Six Boeing CF-18 Hornets are the sharp end of that deployment, the total cost of which now is forecast to be at least $528 million by this time next year. A significant but undisclosed percentage is for ordnance delivered to good effect by the Hornet pilots as well as for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support from two Lockheed Martin CP-140 Auroras and an Airbus CP-150 Polaris tanker.
Cost factors bring us back to potential Hornet replacements. The Secretariat’s latest annual update from the audit firm, Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton, outlines an overall increase of 0.3% to $44.8 billion in estimated JSF life-cycle costs over a projected operational life of 40 years.
The audit also estimates the cost of replacing 7-11 aircraft which could be lost during that operational life. In that case, the overall cost could balloon by at least $1B.
It should also be noted that life-cycle and replacement costs of alternative platforms are seldom, if ever, mentioned by critics when comparing cost.
A participant in the JSF program since 1997, Canada has spent US$343.6 million on it so far. That includes $10.6 million in the 1997-2001 concept demonstration phase as well as, to date, $94.4 million in the 2001-2018 system development and demonstration (SDD) phase, and $183.7 million in the 2006-2051 production, sustainment, and follow-on development phase.
The total is rounded out by the government’s investment in companies in Canada as part of its SDD through Industry Canada’s Strategic Aerospace and Defence Initiative and the former Technology Partnership Canada program.
The government points out that through its JSF participation, Canadian companies have secured US$637 million in JSF-related contracts, up $50 million since last summer. “Canada will continue to participate in the Joint Strike Fighter Program to keep all options open until a decision is made on the replacement.”
That’s a figurative hammer the government likes to hold over JSF critics’ heads but, while it is clearly a legitimate factor in this long-running debate, further study is pointless and a decision is long overdue – not only for the sake of the RCAF, but for myriad defence companies that are also in a holding pattern awaiting a decision. Besides, as the latest audit indicates, the cost of the new aircraft can only rise.
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