F-35: Stealth Fighter Review Doesn't Go Far Enough, Says Expert

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OTTAWA - The Canadian government is not going far enough in its review and oversight of the F-35 and it should examine what the stealth fighter can and cannot do, says an expert who's tracked the controversial program.

Winslow Wheeler, of the Washington-based Centre for Defence Information, says the debate following last week's auditor general report needs to move beyond the eye-popping cost, muddied procurement process and what cabinet ministers knew — or didn't know.

"It needs serious and objective people to look at it and to come up with fact-filled findings that translate into conclusions and recommendations, rather than vague, fuzzy-worded auditor reports and high-octane politician statements," Wheeler said in an interview Monday.

"Your opposition parties seem to be acting like typically weak politicians, crying foul and demanding resignations knowing that not much is going to happen. I'm not sure where all of this is going other than adding to the volume level of Canadian politics."

In its response to auditor general Michael Ferguson's inaugural report, the Harper government last week committed to specifically reviewing the acquisition and sustainment costs of the F-35.

It also said, among other things, the Defence Department will provide "technical briefs as needed on performance schedule and cost" to the new secretariat that will oversee the replacement of the air force's aging CF-18s.

But Wheeler questioned whether the military, which was accused in Ferguson's report of overselling the merits of the plane, is capable of delivering an impartial assessment.

No one in either Canada or the U.S. is asking what they're getting for the billions of dollars they're about to spend and whether the aircraft will perform as promised, he said.

"Even if this flying piano works, it will still be a gigantic disappointment in terms of performance," said Wheeler, who's testified before Parliament on the F-35 and spent years as an analyst at the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Specifically, he says an ongoing, independent analysis should challenge the manufacturer's "glitzy" claims on things such as the term fifth-generation aircraft, which he describes as slick marketing.

Tough questions need to be asked about the aircraft's actual stealth capability because there are certain types of radar, already in existence, that can detect the F-35, said Wheeler.

Other questions need to be asked about the aircraft's ability to defend itself from air-to-air missiles fired at a distance and how it performs as a fighter.

"These are all very basic questions that neither your country, nor mine has looked into," he said.

Last week, the Pentagon released a Selected Acquisition Report for the Joint Strike Fighter and it suggests operational testing and evaluation of the F-35 will not be completed now until 2019.

"We won't know what (kind of aircraft) we have until after that testing and the laundry list of fixes is in and we can cost them out," said Wheeler.

A former head of the air force, retired lieutenant-general Ken Pennie, said all new aircraft go through teething pains.

"Seems to me the problems of performance on F-35 are relatively minor and not much different than any other complex aircraft at this stage of development," said Pennie, who was chief of air staff between 2003 and 2005. "I'm not sure there is much to audit until it gets out of the development cycle and we know more."

And even if the research is conducted, he said the "issue of costs is so highly charged nobody will really listen to the facts."

Wheeler said waiting until 2019 to evaluate the plane would be a disaster for the Royal Canadian Air Force because the current fleet of CF-18s only have enough airframe life to take them into the early 2020's.

The country's top military commander, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, gave the plane a vote of confidence on Monday.

"This is a research and development project that has come a long way," Natynczyk said while attending a ceremony in Ottawa marking the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. "It is flying and it will have all of the tools that our men and women need."

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