In The Media

It’s the weapon we need — but can we afford the F-35?

by Richard Shimooka,

November 15, 2013

Canada today sits in an international system undergoing a dramatic reorganization, one defined by growing competition in a tier of rising new powers and with a host of established states.

The driver for this situation is prosperity, intrinsically linked to an increasingly interconnected global economic order. This hasn’t ushered in an era of peace, as some had hoped. Rather, states have become active participants in this system, with some applying a variety of coercive means to obtain their interests. The international order also still faces the problem of failed and failing states, which are a constant source of instability.

Canada’s geographic isolation is rapidly eroding in this emerging order. The heavy integration of our economy into a global system leaves it vulnerable to disruptions. Canada also may face more direct challenges to its sovereignty. Since 2007, Russia has laid claim to ever-larger areas of the Arctic in an overt bid to control the region’s potential mineral wealth. The receding sea ice will only expose Canada’s vulnerabilities, allowing Russian naval vessels greater freedom of navigation in the area.

In this emerging global order, the government will need access to the full range of foreign policy instruments to maintain its interests. Military force remains one of those instruments and can play a critical role in defending Canadian security. Like the international system itself, however, the nature of that force is changing.

After exhausting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and crippling austerity measures, neither the United States, nor its NATO allies, seem likely to deploy large armies to intervene in anything but the most vital of national interests. This signals a return to the 1990s, when air power became the primary instrument of national power for dealing with intractable foreign policy crises. This shift was made apparent most recently in the campaign to oust Moammar Gadhafi from Libya.

Something’s changed since the 1990s, however. Rising prosperity has enabled even modest states to obtain high-end weapons. We’ve seen a proliferation of highly effective air-to-air and ground-to-air systems, which pose a major threat to the current generation of fighters.

The F-35’s low observable design and advanced avionics are the only realistic response to these emerging threats for the foreseeable future. No other aircraft on the market will possess the same ability to operate in the coming decades.

The F-35 also is well adapted for Arctic operations. Advances in engine technology have resulted in nearly indistinguishable loss rates between the newest generation of single and twin-engine fighters. The F-35 also possesses a longer range than most of its contemporaries — greater than that of the CF-18s that now patrol Canada’s northern approaches.

Nevertheless, there are risks involved with this procurement that must be considered. While many of its operational systems are maturing and acquisition costs have stabilized, key features associated with operational affordability remain unproven at this time. In particular, the advanced logistical information systems are still early in their development. Any failure in this area will have severe consequences for Canada’s ability to operate the aircraft within its projected budget.

An even greater risk is the U.S. budget sequestration process, the result of the so-called Congressional super-committee’s failure to agree to a debt reduction deal. If implemented as currently written, it will significantly harm the current cost and delivery projections. Yet it should be noted that prospects for the law remaining in its current form are remote, as efforts are underway to modify its language in order to avoid deep cuts in procurement.

The F-35 is the only aircraft built to meet the challenges Canada will face in the near future. The federal government should continue its commitment to the program to obtain further industrial benefits, while remaining vigilant for any issues that would affect the purchase. This approach strikes the right balance, ensuring Canadian defence needs are met — at a lower risk to to the exchequer.

A report, F-35 and the Future of Canadian Security, is available from the Strategic Studies Working Group, a partnership between the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, and the Canadian International Council.

Richard Shimooka is an independent consultant and analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. Between 2007 and 2012 he was a fellow at the Defence Management Studies Programme at Queen’s University. He is also a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Richard has written several works that cover a diverse array of topics, including Canadian defence and foreign policy, procurement policy and organizational culture.

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