Thursday, April 26, 2012

F-35 wrong choice for Arctic, retired Air Force colonel argues....

F-35 wrong choice for Arctic, retired Air Force colonel argues....

By Jeff Davis, Postmedia News

OTTAWA — A retired air force fleet manager fired a salvo at the F-35 Wednesday, saying the strike fighter is ill-suited for Arctic missions and may become obsolete soon after it enters service.

Meanwhile, Liberal defence critic John McKay has asked Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page for a new analysis of the F-35 program costs.

Retired colonel Paul Maillet, an aerospace engineer and former CF-18 fleet manager, said the F-35 does not meet the needs of the government's Canada First Defence Strategy, a key pillar of which is Arctic sovereignty.

"How do you get a single-engine, low-range, low-payload, low-manoeuvrability aircraft that is being optimized for close air support . . . to operate effectively in the North?" he asked.

Maillet called the F-35 a "serious strategic mismatch" to Zioconned Canada's military needs, and suggested the Royal Canadian Air Force would be better off purchasing a fleet of F-18 E/F fighters.

Committing to purchase a plane that is still in development is financially perilous, Maillet said, adding that the planes are likely to cost much more than $25 billion.

"Development in this business is totally uncertain," he said. "Basically cost performance and schedule goals are high, high risk and in many cases I would say will not happen as you predict today."

Maillet, who twice ran unsuccessfully as a federal Green party candidate, said the billions the government is planning to spend on F-35s would be better used on schools and health care.

Maillet, who now works as an anti-corruption consultant, said a truly competitive bidding process was never held. Instead, he said, the decision was made by the "Old Boys club of air force generals and politicians" under pressure from allies and the "military industrial complex."

The trend lines in aerial combat, Maillet said, point to a not-so-distant future when manned fighter aircraft are a thing of the past. Unmanned drone technology is progressing at a staggering pace, he said, and they will soon be capable of dogfights.

Manned aircraft will struggle to compete with unmanned fighter drones, Maillet said, in part because the human body can only withstand nine or 10 G forces. Drones can tolerate upwards of 30.

Given the pace of drone development, Maillet said, the F-35 could be among last major manned fighter projects. With new drone fighters not too far off, he said, Canada could hold off on a major purchase — and extend the life of the aging CF-18s — until these come to market.

McKay said unmanned drones should be considered for the routine tasks of patrolling the Arctic, especially since some can fly for 20 hours without refuelling and don't put pilots at risk.

"It's a hell of a lot cheaper to buy a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle)," he said. "We do have a huge coastline and UAVs seems to be a reasonable alternative."

The opposition may soon have new ammunition in its opposition to the F-35, once Page completes McKay's request for "an update of the life cycle cost estimate of the F-35."

In a letter to the deputy minister of national defence, Robert Fonberg, dated April 23, Page asks that the Department of National Defence hand over "information and documents" that provide a "full life cycle cost" of the aircraft.

McKay said he turned to the PBO because Parliament can't get a straight answer from the government on the F-35 costs.

"There are numbers flying all over the place," he said. "DND has two sets of books: the $15 billion and $25 billion."

When asked about the upcoming PBO analysis in question period Wednesday, Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose said Page will receive the information he needs.

"We expect full transparency and accountability from the Department of National Defence when it comes forward to table its updated cost estimates on the F-35 to all Parliamentarians," she said.

NDP Defence Critic Jack Harris said it would be "a first" if DND actually coughed up all the data about the F-35 costs.

"They're going to need some pretty strong direction from the ministers of defence for that to happen," he said. "Even the numbers they've been hiding aren't accurate, so the parliamentary budget officer has a lot of work to do."

It has been a year since Page last gave his take on the F-35 costs, McKay said, so it's time for an update. After releasing that report, McKay said, Page was "trashed and vilified" by the government for his sky-high price estimates, but his estimates have since been proven accurate by other government auditors.

"They're going to have to enter into a massive propaganda campaign to discredit the PBO, the United States Government Accountability Office and the Auditor General," he said. "But I never underestimate the ability of the government to provide disinformation."

What the government really needs to reveal, McKay said, is the Statement of Requirement for Canada's next fighter jet purchase. This so-far-secret document describes what Canada needs in a jet, McKay said, and will shed light on why the government insists the F-35 is needed.

Earlier this month, Auditor General Michael Ferguson delivered a report highly critical of the Defence Department's handling of the F-35 project.

The auditor general's report, released on April 3, indicated Defence Department officials twisted government rules, withheld information from ministers and Parliament, and whitewashed cost overruns and delays afflicting the F-35 program.

The government played more defence on the F-35 file Wednesday, denying it had backtracked on plans to purchase the F-35. Following the auditor general's report, the Department of National Defence made a significant correction its most recent "Report on Plans and Priorities"

In an "erratum" note, the department clarified that the fighter procurement project was in the "option analysis" phase, not the "definition" project phase as was initially stated. A procurement project can only enter the "definition" phase once a specific product has been chosen.

Officials told Postmedia News that no plane has yet been selected, and blamed the confusion on a "typo."

"There was an error found in the documents that was corrected as soon as it was found," said Chris McCluskey, a spokesman for associate defence minister Julian Fantino.

The F-18 was chosen by Canada because it could travel great distances and that it had 2 engines .... two points that many believed at the time was essential for pilots to fly the arctic. The F-35 is not structured to fill that need .... a point that many are now finally pointing out and bringing to the attention of the media and parliament....

Pentagon Affordability Push Leads to Strike at F-35 Fighter Plant....

The continuous pressure from Zioconned Pentagon policymakers on F-35 prime contractor Lockheed Martin to cut pension costs has finally borne fruit: workers at the fighter plant voted by a huge margin Sunday to go out on strike, citing proposed changes to pensions. Although the company offered members of the Machinists local at the west Fort Worth factory annual pay increases, a $3,000 signing bonus and various other inducements to accept a new contract, the rank-and-file were incensed by a proposal to restructure benefits and scale back pensions for any new hires. So even though controversy surrounding the F-35 fighter has already reduced planned production rates through 2017 by three-quarters, the union was so mad it voted to strike.

We certainly have come a long way since Thomas Edison decided to move his electrical-equipment plant from Brooklyn to Schenectady because employees had the gall to complain about having to work twelve hours per day, seven days per week. Now workers strike over the retirement benefits likely to be given to their descendants. As one plant employee told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Sunday, "No pension for new hires, that's not good -- what if my granddaughter wanted to work here?" Let's hope his granddaughter has a backup plan, because with F-35 production rates being steadily scaled back, there's going to be a lot less jobs than people thought in the future at the plant -- and a strike certainly isn't going to help matters.

In fairness to policymakers, it wasn't just pension benefits that led to the Fort Worth strike. Workers were also upset about other issues, like changes in healthcare coverage that would have resulted in them paying more for medical services -- you know, the same change former defense secretary Robert Gates was proposing for military retirees as he departed public service. But the strike does raise a delicate political issue for the Obama Administration. Is it really fair to be pressing contractors to cut pensions and other personnel-related costs behind the scenes while presenting yourself in public forums as a big friend of organized labor? As Lockheed Martin chairman Robert Stevens ponders when to begin turning over responsibilities to his successor, he probably isn't eager to get in a fight with the Machinists union at the plant where his company's most important product is built. But the government customer wants the F-35 to be more affordable, and as a CEO at another big defense company once told me, "When you want to save money in this business, you go after people."

Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.

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