A timely warning about "locking in" to novel technologies such as the over budget, overdue and under-performing F-35 from Brookings Institution senior fellow Peter Singer. His advice - learn from the mistakes of the past, just don't repeat them.
In 1934, the British Air Ministry poured money into a new aircraft
meant to advance past the World War I generation of planes. The
metal-clad Gloster Gladiator could fly almost 250 miles per hour and
carry four machine guns. Unfortunately, this biplane was quickly
outmatched by new monoplanes such as the Spitfire and the German BF-109.
And yet the British plowed ahead, falling prey to the fallacy of sunk
costs and ultimately building more than 700 Gladiators. The pilots
unlucky enough to fly the last, best biplane gave it a different
nickname: the “Flying Coffin.”
Militaries may not like it, but they must be prepared for cherished
developmental programs to go rapidly out of date. Rather than holding
on, they must be prepared to treat them as sunk costs: spent money to be
lamented but not weighed in setting future requirements. And yet the
real challenge isn’t merely to ignore lost bets, as a good investor
should, but also to travel the larger transition. Success depends not on
merely taking risks but spreading risks. Another way of putting it is
that while there is danger in putting all your bets on the best of the
last generation, there is also danger in embracing too closely the first
generation of the new.
If the position of the U.S. and its allies today is comparable to
that of the British almost a century back, the case of the HMS Furious
is instructive. Despite the battleship’s dominance of naval warfare, in
1917 the Royal Navy pioneered a capability called an “aircraft carrier,”
a ship that took the new technology of an airplane out to sea. Yet
having launched a disruption, the British proved unable to move past
early suboptimal designs and concepts of use. It was the U.S. and
Japanese who would figure out the fleet carrier. When you gain the new,
you still have to ask whether you are locking in on the first generation
of its design, doctrine, tactics, etc.
As I have argued repeatedly on this site, the F-35 is really a Beta-model warplane. Because it's a novelty airplane, it's still in development. That's what the aircraft's "testing" regime actually is, a multi-year development programme to identify essential modifications that will then be retrofitted to aircraft already constructed and in service.
Lockheed's publicity people branded the F-35 a Fifth Generation fighter but, even if that's so, it's very much Generation 5.0 and we'll be locking in to that first stealth iteration for, we're told, upwards of 50-years. That's beyond foolish.
Canada really cannot afford to get locked in to unproven technology that's this costly. We have to avoid the trap the Brits fell into with the Gloster Gladiator. Unless you're prepared to go to war very soon, you can't judge the F-35 by the technology its potential adversaries are fielding today. What matters is how they'll respond to it a decade from now or two.
The F-35 might have looked invincible a decade ago but since then its weaknesses and vulnerabilities have been revealed. We know them, the other guys also know them and they're working on ways to exploit them. The Chinese, it's said, helped themselves to a vast amount of Lockheed's stealth bomber data by hacking into contractors' computers.
Imagine what Herman Goering must have thought as he watched the Brits continue to pour money into the Gladiator while he was equipping the Luftwaffe with Messerschmidt 109s. Now imagine what Chinese generals must be thinking as they watch America and her allies herded into the F-35 corral. Pretty much the same thing, I'll bet.
We may not know the secrets of the F-35 but the Chinese know a good many of them. They know what the F-35 can do and what it can't do and they probably have an idea or two how to counter what it can do.
Once we're locked in to Lockheed's light stealth bomber, we might find ourselves stuck for thirty, forty, even fifty years, with the 21st century equivalent of the last, best biplane.