OTTAWA – A U.S. defence and foreign affairs think-tank released a comprehensive report Tuesday suggesting the oft-maligned F-35 jet might not meet the performance standards of existing fighter planes, including Canada’s CF-18s.
The National Security Network, a non-profit foreign policy group based in Washington, D.C., is the latest organization to raise questions about the stealth fighter program, which is over budget and behind schedule in the U.S.
Other organizations, including the Rand Corp., have studied the troubled program, but much of the analysis has revolved around the enormous cost and some of the technical snags, such as software, that have held up development. There have also been simulations that have compared the F-35 to potential competitors.
One of the key features of the latest report is its comparison of F-35 operational capabilities with the jets it is intended to replace, including the F-16, F-18 and A-10. In each case, the stealth fighter comes up short.
The group urges the Obama administration to do a “serious” reassessment of the program and determine whether there are alternatives available.
“Whether this opportunity to seriously reassess DOD’s commitment to the F-35 will be seized remains to be seen,” the report said. “But, by staying fully committed to the F-35 program, the United States is investing unprecedented resources in the wrong aircraft, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.”
A spokeswoman for Lockheed Martin, the plane’s U.S. manufacturer, defended the project, saying the Pentagon’s head of the program has stated there are no “show stopper” technical issues that prevent the warplane from being fielded.
“Regarding this report, we see the program much differently,” said Alison Orne, who noted there are more than 130 jets in service today and the U.S. Marine Corps recently declared the fighter ready for initial operations. “This program has never been stronger and by the end of the decade more than 650 jets will be flying worldwide.”
While the defence giant may see the project in a different light, Orne’s email didn’t address the specific issue of the comparison between the F-35 and legacy jets.
The Harper government put its purchase of 65 F-35s on hold after being accused by the auditor general of fudging the price tag and not doing sufficient research. It plans to extend the life of the CF-18s to 2025.
The planned RCAF purchase, which would have cost taxpayers an estimated $44 billion over its four-decade lifetime, was a prominent feature of the last election campaign in 2011, but since the auditor general’s report it has slipped off the public radar as the bureaucracy has buried it in studies, analyses and process.
Some defence observers and commentators have suggested the plan to refurbish the 1980s-era CF-18s has effectively neutralized the politically damaging issue, at least until the Oct. 19 vote. But University of British Columbia political scientist and defence expert Michael Byers says the new report should remind the public that replacement of the one of the military’s core fleets has been badly mismanaged.
“I think governments need to be made to own failures like that,” said Byers, who has urged the government to abandon the F-35 in favour of another plane. “Our fleet of fighter aircraft is unacceptably old and there is no current plan to replace them.”
Byers said metal fatigue on the CF-18 airframes is a concern. The air force has said the current bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria is not adding to wear on the existing jets because they are not facing the stress of high-speed manoeuvres.
Byers accepts that, but he says the increasing threat of Russian incursions — either into Canadian airspace or in other NATO countries — means the fighters will be called upon to perform more stressful flying.
Researchers noted that matching the F-16’s manoeuvrability was a minimum design requirement for the F-35, yet they concluded the older jet is capable of flying faster and enjoys better wing-loading performance, an aspect critical for dogfighting.
The F-16 is not considered as manoeuvrable as the F-18 Hornet, of which Canada has about 75 still airworthy.