Readers of this blog will know I have been no advocate of the F-35. Nonetheless the Liberal Party, in its just-released and ludicrously short (three pages!) defence platform displays utter ignorance of modern Western fighter realities (Canada is not going to buy Russian or Chinese). The party says it will hold an open competition for the RCAF’s new plane and then says it will simply exclude the F-35A from that competition. Huh? Talks about a political competition, not a real one. From the platform, p. 3:
We will not purchase the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber. The primary mission of our fighter aircraft will remain the defence of North America [good point, see ‘F-35 and Canada: Good for “Discretionary” Missions, But…‘]. We will immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 that will exclude requirements that do not reflect Canada’s interests, such as first-strike stealth capabilities. We will reduce the financial procurement envelope for replacing the CF-18s [that figure is $9 billion]. Instead of budgeting for the acquisition of 65 F-35s, we will plan to purchase an equal or greater number of lower priced, but equally effective, replacement aircraft.
At an 80 cent dollar, the per unit fly away cost of each F-35 is $175 million, and the sustainment costs of each plane will be $270 million – given that repair work must largely be undertaken in the United States. Alternatively, the Super Hornet’s reported fly away price is around $65 million at an 80 cent dollar, and a large amount of the sustainment activity can be undertaken here at home, creating good jobs for Canadians.
The Super Hornet is merely used as an illustration of cost savings and is not indicative of which aircraft would win a truly open and transparent competition…
Now the real numbers. The USAF’s FY 2016 (starts Oct. 1 2015) unit acquisition cost of the F-35A is US $132 million or some Cdn $165 million with an 80 cent dollar–not $175 million. However by US FY 2020, when Canada might well place an order after a real competition if the F-35A won, that cost is projected at some US $100 million or Cdn $125 million at the same exchange rate (who knows though? and who knows if planned production rates will be funded by Congress). A lot less than $175 million.
Then the Super Hornet. In US FY 2013 each cost US $80 million. That would be Cdn $100 million, a whole lot more the $65 million, eh? How many of those might the Liberals buy with a reduced procurement budget? Not the 65 fighters the RCAF says it needs.
As for “plan to purchase an equal or greater number of lower priced, but equally effective, replacement aircraft” other than the Super Hornet (with less than $9 billion!), there are three theoretical possibilities. But the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale are both considered considerably more expensive than the Super Hornet [scroll down here to para starting “Extrapolating a little…”] while the new Saab Gripen E is probably comparable to the Super Hornet.
There’s another big problem. The Super Hornet and its Growler electronic attack brother may well be out of production after 2017 (though the US Navy is trying hard to keep the line open, more here and here); and the Typhoon line may stop by 2018 (though there is always the chance of foreign orders keeping it going).
So by the time the Liberals got around to buying a cheaper fighter than the F-35A there might be only one relevant aircraft around, the Gripen E. Some competition. Sure looks like the Liberals don’t have a clue about the fighter aircraft market–in fact it looks like they don’t give a damn about realities. Cloud cuckoo land. As with the Conservatives it’s just all politics all the time–see here and here (though NDP leader Thomas Mulcair sounds very reasonable by comparison!). Some basis for a serious country’s defence policies.
Here’s the website of the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat.