03/28/2014 01:28 EDT | Updated 05/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Costs higher, risks greater with joint aircraft programs like F-35: think-tank

WASHINGTON - A report highly critical of joint-aircraft programs like the controversial F-35 stealth fighter has been delivered at the U.S. Congress, along with a pointed warning that the American military should avoid such initiatives in the future.

The paper, produced at the request of the former head of the U.S. air force procurement unit, was presented Friday at a congressional briefing by the Rand Corp. think-tank, which conducted the analysis.

It analyzed 11 joint-aircraft projects over a half-century and concluded they were plagued by unexpectedly high costs that, under every scenario studied, raised the price tag beyond what it would cost to acquire jets separately.

The attempt to create an all-in-one aircraft, designed to suit the needs of different services, was blamed for expensive engineering challenges. The long-term life-cycle cost was found to be between one-third and two-thirds higher, depending on the time frame studied and the variables considered.

"There is no evidence whatsoever that joint-fighter programs actually do save money," said study co-author Mark Lorell, who delivered Friday's presentation.

Controversy over the F-35 was one of the reasons behind the 2011 non-confidence motion that brought down the minority Conservative government, which came back to win a majority five weeks later.

Ottawa is now evaluating potential alternatives to its original plan to purchase 65 F-35 aircraft. A 2012 auditor's report warned that the total bill, including service and support, could be as much as $45.8 billion over 42 years to replace the current stable of CF-18 fighters, which are due to be retired in 2020.

The government stepped back from the program after the auditor general accused National Defence of hiding $10 billion in continuing costs and Public Works of not doing enough research to justify the purchase.

Lorell said the report doesn't offer any conclusions for the F-35 program, or whether Canada should join it.

He said it was intended, rather, to guide U.S. policy-makers as they prepare next-generation acquisitions. And the headline atop the briefing paper that accompanied the study delivered the conclusion in categorical terms: "The (U.S.) Department of Defence Should Avoid a Joint Acquisition Approach to the Sixth-Generation Fighter."

As for the current F-35 program, the fifth generation, it was plagued by familiar challenges.

The U.S. Marines wanted short-takeoff and vertical-landing capabilities for aircraft carriers, Lorell said; the navy wanted a two-seat carrier; and the air force wanted a land-based, low-cost plane.

"The operating requirements of a carrier vs. a land-based aircraft are so different," said Lorell, who has spent three decades studying defence-system acquisition and international collaboration.

"The doctrine, the mission, the operational style of the services are so different that the requirements for an aircraft are fundamentally different."

The inability to cram all those features into a single aircraft winds up leading to the production of sub-categories — and that's where the savings start to melt away, he said.

There are three variants of the F-35 — A, B and C. Canada, which does not have an aircraft carrier, has signed up for the A model.

In response to the report, the Canadian government said it was keeping its options open. As for whether the initial investment might have been wasted, it said Canadian companies have already won $506 million in contracts as a result of Canada's participation in the project.

But one Canadian critic says the F-35 was a bad idea from the start.

Retired Col. Paul Maillet, who worked in aircraft procurement as an Air Force fleet manager, said planes that try to be all things to all people wind up costing more money — and become worse planes.

He said such mega-projects are an testament to the power of the "military-industrial complex." Consortiums team up to offer a cheaper price tag; there's influence on American politicians; then officials in the U.S. government and military do "a lot of arm-twisting" to get colleagues abroad to contribute.

Maillet said the report doesn't surprise him.

"Absolutely not," he said.

"These things are horrendously expensive... Everybody is starting to squirm a little on this project."

The report identifies two other concerns with joint fighters.

It argues there are military risks involved in every service branch putting its eggs in the same technological basket.

It cites the Korean War as an example. It said the U.S. air force was able to quickly upgrade one of its four jet fighters, the F-86 Sabre, following the surprise introduction of more sophisticated Russian MiGs into the conflict.

"Had the air force and navy relied exclusively on a single joint fighter other than the F-86, it might not have been able to respond quickly," said the report. "The more the U.S. military employs joint fighters, the fewer options will be available to meet unforeseen threats and crises in the future."

Another drawback is the limited number of contractors able to produce a joint fighter.

There were eight aircraft contractors in the U.S. in 1985, three today, and Lockheed Martin is the only one leading a fifth-generation development and production program. As a result, the project amounts to a sole-source contract.

Such a narrow procurement process can stifle innovation, the report argues.

Lorell said the study was based on extremely conservative assumptions, that gave joint fighters the benefit of the doubt to the greatest extent possible.

Again, he stressed that Rand's report was not attempting to weigh into a Canadian policy debate. He said the data examined did not consider the costs and benefits for international partners.

"They have no applicability whatsoever to any current issue regarding to JSF — to what our partners should do," he said.

"That would require a completely different analysis."