Critics for the F-35 routinely slam the Harper government for single-sourcing the choice for Canada's next fighter aircraft. They argue there should have been an open competition to assess all the options including the French Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the SAAB Griffen among others.
What no one has looked into is just why the government and Canadian Forces have been so resistant to staging a competition. The standard line is that the F-35 is the only stealth option and, therefore, it has no competition. End of story. But, is that just a convenient smoke screen? It probably is.
What would a competition reveal? Among other things it would demonstrate each aircraft's strengths and weaknesses. These aircraft are expected to do a number of things - ground attack, dogfighting, patrol and interception, reconnaissance, and of course training. Characteristics such as speed, service ceiling (operational altitude), range, radar and avionics, maneuverability and weapons load are all critical factors. Stealth - the ability to avoid detection or defeat enemy defences - is another but just one and all modern aircraft offer some degree of both qualities.
So a comprehensive, "fly off" competition would show how each aircraft stacks up in each type of operational setting, its strengths and its weaknesses. And, of course, as quantity is a quality in itself, you get to factor in costs and the number of aircraft you would be able to deploy for a specified sum.
And there's the rub. A competition would not only highlight the F-35s key technical advantage, stealth, but also its lacklustre qualities on just about everything else - range, speed, maneuverability, weapons load and, of course, cost, cost, cost. A competition would reveal both how brittle is the technological edge that alone justifies the F-35 but how irrelevant (unusable) that edge is in most operational flying.
That sort of comparison would also reveal that the F-35 is intended for a specific purpose - penetrating some distant enemy's airspace to bomb the hell out of some remote enemy target. It would also reveal just how mediocre the aircraft would be at every other, non-stealth critical, mission including just about everything at home in defence of Canada.
Now as Canada isn't likely to decide to launch wars against any country in Asia or Africa or the Middle East, then the F-35 is probably intended for the sort of campaign we joined in Desert Storm or over Serbia or Libya. And, of course, we had to go to war with unstealthy CF-18s and who can forget how many of those we lost to enemy air defences. Oh, I did. I forgot. Can you remind me how many airplanes we lost? I can't think of even one.
That's not to say there aren't countries with modern air defences considerably superior to Iraq's or Serbia's or Libya's. China and Russia come to mind. Oh, right! We need the F-35 so that Canada can maintain a first-strike offensive capability against China and Russia. And we need that, why? Oh dear.
So there's a reason, several of them, for the Harper government and the Canadian defence department to forcefully resist holding an open fighter competition. They've got several reasons, and not one of them any damned good for Canada.
In keeping with the "this deal reeks" theme, John Ivison today offers insights from now retired Alan Williams who was deputy minister for acquisitions in the early days of the F-35 adventure.
"Mr. Williams is outraged that the government wants to spend $30-billion of taxpayers’ money without even publishing the statement of requirement, which says what the air force needs and why it needs it. “It is unacceptable for any government not to share this information,” he said.
"...The F-35 experience does suggest a process that is out of control. And we know that it is not an isolated incident. Mr. Williams said that former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, once indicated to him that he wanted Chinook heavy lift helicopters. “I said to him, ‘don’t tell me that you want Chinooks, tell me your requirements’. Almost the day I left, they ordered Chinooks,” he said. These are the same Chinooks that are at least three years behind schedule and 100% over budget — the aircraft where former auditor-general Sheila Fraser said the deliberate understatement of risk by DND was “totally unacceptable.”'
Why no "statement of requirement"? The original post explains that. The government and DND don't want to discuss what they 'require' the F-35 to do. Not only would that show it's needed to a role that Canadians probably wouldn't like but it would also show how poorly suited the plane is for roles we expect our air force to perform.