What If the F-35 Was a Low-Budget Film?

12/14/2012 05:31 EST | Updated 02/13/2013 05:12 EST

If a producer was to consider making a feature film about the F-35 procurement process she or he might, given the events over the past few years, either go with one of two genres: Max Senate and the Keystone cops, or Federico Fellini for something a bit more surreal.

Somewhere between those two extremes lies, I would think, the reality of the storyline. And while our writers were trying to figure out the major plot developments they would wonder what tantalizing aspects of the reality playing out currently they should work with. Does Canada need fifth-generation fighters? Why? How many? Who figured out that number? And what might those fighters cost? Individually? Overall? What about spare parts? What about training for pilots and technicians? What weapons would need to be bought, both now and in the future? What would those parts, the training and the weapons cost now and in the future? Who should we be buying from? And if the airplane is not made in Canada (Bombardier being about the only possible prime contractor) then from whom should Canada be buying, and what industrial offsets might be possible or essential to keep Canadians employed?

These would be the questions and debates taking place among the "officials" of National Defence, Public Works and Government Services Canada and at least a few other departments and agencies. DFAIT (with the "IT" standing for "International Trade") would want to have a say in the matter as would the regional development agencies who seek jobs for the regions (Atlantic Opportunities and Western Development to name two). Only once the complex calculus of decisions and negotiations had been undertaken might it be possible to have some idea of the costs of this procurement.

At this point enter, normally, the politicians to make announcements about fundamental questions of defence capability and economic activity. Normally. But politicians have a way, neither good nor bad, right of wrong, of becoming involved early on when the money is big.

To the "official" the internal processes can take on a Fellini-like quality. The complexities of trying to accommodate a range of "priorities" become overwhelming. If I am the requirements author -- likely a fighter pilot who has worked with the technologies and with Allied nations -- then it will seem reasonably clear why we need a certain capability.

Inside the F-35 Factory, Ft. Worth, Texas

In this case we see the requirement for an aircraft that can defeat known and likely threats of the next 20-ish years, that can interface technically and tactically with typical collation partners, and that can be had in reasonable numbers without breaking the bank. The technical author -- either an air force engineer or civil servant -- will need to translate this requirement into hard technical terms and then start the process of finding suitable products that can satisfy that requirement.

The complexity grows as the file is reviewed by the other agencies mentioned and then transferred to PWGSC for contracting. But what if Canada was to get in at the ground level (no pun intended) of a brand new aircraft -- the Joint Strike Fighter (aka F-35)? From a requirements and technologies perspective this would seem highly logical: Canada would have a (small) say in what capabilities and technologies were to be incorporated in a brand new aircraft with hopefully a long service life ahead of it, and from the cost end believing that Canada's slice of the R&D bill would be money well spent could not be a bad thing.

Going this "sole source" path would not be a bad thing from the perspective of other departments so long as the industrial benefits could still be achieved. And so we have found ourselves in the current situation: a brand new airplane that meets all the operational requirements, but which has not gone through a competitive process.

Here's where there could be two complementary Keystone overtones. The first is the detached observer's view of these internal processes. While what happens just might seem reasonable, logical and controllable often it is not. Perfectly reasonable statements of requirement or technical specifications can be derailed because they cost too much or because there is no Canadian industrial offset.

Months or even years of work, negotiation and decision can be tossed aside because of a political miscue. Here's where the political shading comes in, seen in not just the current, but many different political procurement decisions going back at least a half century. Part and parcel of this comedy variant is who tells the public what, and what the public understands of what it's been told.

To use the F-35 scenario Minister McKay says the cost of the aircraft is $9B. He's right, but he has not said (or if he has no one either heard or understood) that we also have to buy weapons, spare parts, technical materials, training simulators and the like. The bill for the aircraft plus all of this extra stuff is about 2.5 times the $9B, so why not say so -- these are part of the normal project cost figures. And now enter the new costing model which says first that we will keep operating these aircraft for over four decades and that we'll include the cost of fuel and salaries in the overall price tag. If that's the model we're now going to use OK, but I almost feel sorry both for the Government and the officials who were working from a different and not inappropriate costing model.

Oh the ennui -- let's take the whole procurement process away from National Defence and give it to PWGSC. Strangely contracting has for decades been the responsibility of the procurement experts there, and has been since the Department of Defence Production was established under CD Howe early in the Second World War. Howe got his mandate because it was determined that the RCAF was not expert in negotiating procurement contracts! But if we can be assured that the right agency has control of the contracting process then we also need to review the requirement itself and determine if it's the F-35 we need or the F-35 we want.