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A Stealthy Manoeuvre to Keep the F-35 Alive

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"We will not be constrained by the Statement of Requirements," says the Minister announcing the (re)start of an Options Analysis. No kidding.

There was a time when the Statement of Requirements led to the plane the Conservatives want -- the F-35. Now, it leads nowhere. By the time the Conservatives are ready to (re)pull the trigger, the fifth generation F-35 will still be somebody's fantasy and the Pentagon's albatross. The Conservatives need a different path to the F-35. That's the Options Analysis.

We all know of course that "fifth generation" is Lockheed Martin's marketing code for its F-35. According to their website, "fifth generation" refers to a certain set of attributes and capabilities unique to the F-35 design: stealth, sensor fusion and a very fancy helmet-mounted display. Impressive. But this plane's in trouble.

In January, the Pentagon's testing and evaluation shop released its latest report on its most expensive weapons system ever -- the F-35. It's a laundry list of problems: efforts to reduce weight have made it more vulnerable than the planes it's intended to replace; the threat of lightning-induced fuel system explosions has forced designers back to the drawing board; and turns out, it doesn't accelerate or turn as fast as hoped and advertised. It never did boast the performance features of the latest fighter jet technologies such as thrust-vectoring engines and supersonic cruise -- attributes one might reasonably consider necessary for Canadian air defense.

All of this just reconfirms what most experts have been saying about this plane all along: it's a bit of a pig with wings.

As a telling summary of the evaluation, the Pentagon decided to reduce the performance specifications for the plane. And how did the F-35's fifth generation capabilities fare? Well, the stealth coating is -- still -- peeling off the tail. Problems with the helmet-mounted display system remain. In fact, a new one has emerged -- "green glow." Mission system development is delayed and less capable. The plane "lacks maturity," concluded the Pentagon and Congress can't yet bring itself to require the US Armed Services to estimate an Initial Operational Capability date.

The implications are clear. At no time soon will this plane fulfill the Statement of Requirements for Canada's next generation fighter jet. By 2020, it'll fly, but it won't be fifth generation. Ah, how to get out of this box?
The Australians, partners like us in the Joint Strike Fighter program, have a way. It's expensive though.

Having anticipated as recently as 2009 that they'd be in possession of their first F-35 by 2014 -- and have three squadrons in the air by 2021 -- a recently leaked Defense White Paper anticipates that their RAAF will be in possession of just two F-35s by 2020. The speculation is that they'll bridge the gap to the F-35s by procuring another tranche of Boeing's Super Hornet. They've done this once and appear set to do it again and there's speculation that Canada is set to follow.

Recently, as part of the resurrected Options Analysis, the government sent out a survey to Lockheed Martin and its competitors. The survey divides the acquisition of a new fighter jet into two time periods -- 2020 to 2030 and 2030 and beyond. Super Hornets for the first decade? Perhaps.

Now, there are many mysteries surrounding the F-35 procurement -- some of them enduring. For example, why is this government so committed to this troubled plane? Or, in other terms, who's got them in a headlock and why can't they get out?

Other mysteries are revealed as we go. For example, how on earth were we ever going to be able to buy 65 F-35s for $9 billion? Turns out, we weren't. As we know from multiple reports including the recent KPMG report, we were misled -- by tens of billions -- by this Conservative government.

But sometimes, there is no mystery -- it's just a matter of listening carefully to what they're saying. The Minister has told us -- over and over again -- that she "won't be constrained by the Statement of Requirements." And with that, so disappears the requirement for fifth generation capabilities by 2020.

Apparently, 2030 will do. And the F-35 remains the only plane on the Conservatives' shopping list.
True enough, the Conservatives won't be constrained by the Statement of Requirements. They found another way back to the F-35 -- yes, by stealth -- through the Options Analysis. And it is as it always was -- the only way to escape this government's commitment to the F-35 and ensure that we get the right plane for the right price is by way of an open and transparent competition.

Why won't they do that?

Well, that's one of those enduring mysteries.