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."
FIIn this file photo taken on July 14, 2011 and released by U.S. Air Force, a USAF F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) aircraft soars over Destin, Fla., before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base. Japan selected the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, to replace aging jets in its air force and bolster its defense capability amid regional uncertainty. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Joely Santiago)
A F-35 Lightning II sits on stage during the United Kingdom F-35 Lightning II delivery ceremony on July 19, 2012 at Lockheed Martin Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas. The ceremony marked the first international delivery of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to a partner nation. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
Plane models stand outside the Lockheed Martin Corporation during the United Kingdom F-35 Lightning II Delivery Ceremony on July 19, 2012 in Fort Worth, Texas. The ceremony marked the first international delivery of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to a partner nation. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet sits in front the entrance of the Asian Aerospace 2004 show in Singapore 24 February 2004. The Asia Pacific offers one of the world's strongest prospects for defence-related spending, US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin said Tuesday as it expressed confidence in remaining a major supplier to the region's governments (AFP PHOTO/ROSLAN RAHMAN)
(AFP PHOTO/CARL DE SOUZA)
A Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lighning II fighter jet sits on the tarmac for static display at the Singapore Airshow in Singapore on February 12, 2012. Boeing's much-delayed 787 Dreamliner is set to star at the Singapore Airshow this week where companies touting private jets and defence hardware to the Asian market will also be out in force. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
(ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
On Feb. 16, 2012, the first external weapons test mission was flown by an F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The F-35A is designed to carry up to 18000 pounds on 10 weapon stations featuring four weapon stations inside two weapon bays, for maximum stealth capability, and an additional three weapon stations on each wing.
IN AIR, NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, MD - FEBRUARY 11: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been received by U.S. Military prior to transmission) In this image released by the U.S. Navy courtesy of Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Navy variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C, conducts a test flight February 11, 2011 over the Chesapeake Bay. Lt. Cmdr. Eric 'Magic' Buus flew the F-35C for two hours, checking instruments that will measure structural loads on the airframe during flight maneuvers. The F-35C is distinct from the F-35A and F-35B variants with larger wing surfaces and reinforced landing gear for greater control when operating in the demanding carrier take-off and landing environment. (Photo by U.S. Navy photo courtesy Lockheed Martin via Getty Images)
Courtesy: NAVAIR/JSF Program/Lockheed Martin
Highlights of F-35 flight testing at NAS Patuxent River, Md., NAS Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base, and Edwards AFB, Calif.
The first night flight in the history of the Lockheed Martin F-35 program was completed on Jan. 19, 2012 in the skies above Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Piloted by Lockheed Martin Test Pilot Mark Ward, AF-6, an F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant, launched at 5:05 pm PST and landed after sunset at 6:22 pm
An F-35 test pilot talks about airstart testing at Edwards AFB, Calif., in early 2012.