September 10, 2012

Guaranteed headline in Canadian papers: mention the Avro Arrow

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:29

Today it’s the National Post (actually, it’s just a Canadian Press wire piece) chumming the waters with a report on an “Avro Arrow redesign pitched as alternative to controversial F-35″:

A Canadian company is seeking to go back in time to help fly Canada’s air force into the future.

Documents obtained by the Global News program “The West Block” indicate an update to the storied CF-105 Avro Arrow was put forward as an alternative to the purchase of F-35 stealth fighter jets.

And among the project’s champions is one of Canada’s top soldiers, retired Maj.Gen. Lewis MacKenzie.

The Arrow was an advanced, all-weather supersonic interceptor jet that was developed in the 1950s. Several prototypes were built and flight tests were conducted, but the project was abruptly shut down in 1959 and the aircraft never went into production.

Even people who care less than nothing about aircraft or military technology seem to have opinions about the Avro Arrow (usually allowing them to take free shots at former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker for the decision to scrap the plane). It’s far enough in the past that the facts are more than obscured by the myths of the cottage conspiracy theory industry (artisanal Canadian myth-making, hand-woven, fair-trade, and 100% organic).

The Avro Arrow is the story that never dies in Canadian papers.

April 30, 2012

The F-35, the “supersonic albatross”?

Filed under: Cancon, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:24

Foreign Policy has a feature up called “The Jet That Ate the Pentagon” by Winslow Wheeler:

The United States is making a gigantic investment in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, billed by its advocates as the next — by their count the fifth — generation of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat aircraft. Claimed to be near invisible to radar and able to dominate any future battlefield, the F-35 will replace most of the air-combat aircraft in the inventories of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and at least nine foreign allies, and it will be in those inventories for the next 55 years. It’s no secret, however, that the program — the most expensive in American history — is a calamity.

[. . .]

How bad is it? A review of the F-35’s cost, schedule, and performance — three essential measures of any Pentagon program — shows the problems are fundamental and still growing.

First, with regard to cost — a particularly important factor in what politicians keep saying is an austere defense budget environment — the F-35 is simply unaffordable. Although the plane was originally billed as a low-cost solution, major cost increases have plagued the program throughout the last decade. Last year, Pentagon leadership told Congress the acquisition price had increased another 16 percent, from $328.3 billion to $379.4 billion for the 2,457 aircraft to be bought. Not to worry, however — they pledged to finally reverse the growth.

The result? This February, the price increased another 4 percent to $395.7 billion and then even further in April. Don’t expect the cost overruns to end there: The test program is only 20 percent complete, the Government Accountability Office has reported, and the toughest tests are yet to come. Overall, the program’s cost has grown 75 percent from its original 2001 estimate of $226.5 billion — and that was for a larger buy of 2,866 aircraft.

At those prices, there are few allies who will be able to afford them — Canada clearly not among them.

April 20, 2012

Confused about the F-35 program? Scott Feschuk will help you

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Humour, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:51

No, really:

What exactly is an F-35?

It’s a new fighter jet being manufactured by Lockheed Martin. Its full name is the Joint Strike Fighter F-35 Lightning II. We probably shouldn’t be at all concerned that this sounds like something a little boy would name his tricycle.

What’s this got to do with Canada?

All the cool countries are getting F-35s, so we’re buying some too. In fact, our Department of National Defence wanted this hip new toy so badly that it structured the procurement process to ensure no other jet could win. In 2010, the Conservative government dutifully announced plans to purchase 65 F-35 fighters, at a cost of $9 billion. On one hand, that sounds like a lot of money, but on the other hand, why do you hate our troops, first hand?

[. . .]

Doesn’t $9 billion seem like a reasonable price for basically a whole new air force?

Did the government say $9 billion? It meant $15 billion, by which it actually meant $25 billion.

Wait — why have the numbers changed?

That meddling Auditor General of ours happened to notice that National Defence low-balled the total cost of the F-35 program by the teeny-tiny amount of ten thousand million dollars.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said this was “a matter of accounting.” What he meant was that he and his cabinet colleagues were “a-counting” on Canadians not catching on to the fact they were concealing some $10,000,000,000 in costs.

That’s a lot of zeroes.

I’ll thank you not to refer to members of the federal cabinet that way.

April 16, 2012

A more sensible way to analyze the F-35 issue

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:15

In the National Post, Shaun Francis and John Kelleher offer an easier-to-understand method of analyzing the costs and benefits of the F-35 program:

Consider a car. Let’s say you’re considering buying a subcompact or an SUV, which you plan to hold onto for five years. A subcompact has a one-time purchase cost of $20,000 followed by $7,000 in annual, recurring costs on things like gas and maintenance. Your total costs over five years are therefore $55,000, or $11,000 average cost/year.

Meanwhile, the SUV has a one-time purchase cost of $25,000 and recurring costs of $7,500, leading to a five-year total cost of $62,500, or $12,500 average total cost/year.

To examine whether buying an SUV makes sense, you take the costs of the SUV and you subtract the costs of your next best alternative, the subcompact. Then you ask yourself, is it worth a premium of $1,500 per year to drive an SUV versus a subcompact?

From a decision point of view, it doesn’t make sense to get upset over the $62,500 total cost of the SUV. That’s not the pertinent figure here. You can’t walk to work. You need a car. So the pertinent question is the cost differential — in this example the $7,500 premium between your preferred choice and the next best option.

Canada’s F-35 decision should have been framed in a similar fashion by the Auditor General. The appropriate question? Do we want to pay a premium for the world’s best fighter jet, which will be cutting edge for decades to come, or can we make do with more reasonably priced planes that are bound to become obsolete sooner?

In the article they say “no one is questioning whether Canada needs fighter jets”, which is not actually true. Significant portions of the NDP, the Greens, and even some Liberals feel we should not be buying any military equipment that does not have a primarily humanitarian use. In their view, transport aircraft might be acceptable but combat aircraft would not. Trucks, yes, but tanks, no.

April 10, 2012

Jack Granatstein calls for the heads of the deputy and associate deputy minister of defence

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Media, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:24

Jack Granatstein is very well respected as a military historian and analyst. His interpretation of the F-35 situation leads him to — in effect — call for the dismissal of people whose names are not generally being bandied about in the media:

Then let us look at the decision-making process in the Department of National Defence. Almost all the commentary in the media and Parliament has pointed fingers at the CDS, Gen. Natynzcyk. But he is only the military leader of the department, not the sole ruler. Co-equal to him — and, in fact, in most knowledgeable observers’ judgment substantially more than that — is the deputy minister, Robert Fonberg, in his post since 2007. The associate deputy minister materiel, responsible for all procurement projects, reports to Mr. Fonberg, and the deputy determines what his minister, Peter MacKay, and eventually the cabinet sees. The public messaging in the department is handled by the assistant deputy minister (public affairs), who also reports to Mr. Fonberg. The civilian defence bureaucrats truly wield the power.

The point is this: The uniformed officers of the department provide the best military advice they can. Sometimes they are incorrect; most times they pray they are right because they know their decisions will affect their comrades’ lives. But the estimates of costs, and the spin that has so exercised the Auditor-General, the media and the Opposition, are shaped and massaged by the deputy minister, in effect DND’s chief financial officer, who advises the minister of national defence.

No one comes out of the F-35 affair smelling like a rose. Mr. MacKay undoubtedly made mistakes in overselling the aircraft, and Gen. Natynzcyk likely did as well. But it would be a miscarriage of justice if these two lost their heads to the vengeful axe demanded by an aroused media, and the deputy minister and his civilian bureaucrats escaped unscathed.

April 8, 2012

The F-35 program is “Military Keynesianism”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Economics, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:25

Wayne K. Spear explains the ordinary and the extraordinary parts of a military procurement process, as illustrated by the F-35 project:

A straight-shooting bureaucrat will admit that procurement processes are often initiated with the final selection a foregone conclusion. If you know in advance what you need, and you furthermore know who’s most qualified to deliver, then formalities intended to promote transparency and accountability are at best inconveniences to circumnavigate — and every public servant knows well how to steer that ship. That this occurs regularly within the bureaucracy is an open secret.

The Joint Strike Force program, at the centre of which is a proposed purchase of F-35 fighters, introduces disturbing wrinkles to an otherwise unremarkable bureaucratic occurrence. On military matters I refer to the self-described “prolific Ottawa blogger” Mark Collins , who has been training his keen eye on this fiasco for years. At his site you’ll find links to a range of useful resources, for example a DND PowerPoint which makes it clear that military leaders chose the F-35 and only later manufactured the selection criteria. Again, not unusual in procurement. The department however did so on grounds no one has yet admitted, never mind defended. That’s only one of many problems.

Reviewing the Auditor General’s report and the media coverage of this issue, I infer that the F-35 achieved the status of a foregone conclusion for the following reasons. 1) Canada had invested millions of dollars into the F-35 program as early as the 1990s; 2) Lockheed Martin Aeronautics lobbied aggressively, and more effectively, than its rivals (and employed Prospectus Associates, a consultancy firm with the inner track to Defence Minister Peter MacKay); and 3) the F-35 series of fighters — although years from completion and with many important details unclear and ever-changing (including year of completion, engine cost, cost to maintain) — were the only “fifth generation” fighters on the table. As the Auditor General points out, fifth generation “is not a description of an operational requirement.” My own research suggests this phrase means something like ”Ooo!” — which is what I often say when I see a jet fighter in action.

It’s a given that the Royal Canadian Air Force needs to address the rapidly aging CF-18 fleet before 2020 (the estimated end-of-life for the current fighters). The choice had appeared to be simple: follow on our pre-existing development deal with a purchase of F-35 fighters. The problems were that the development schedule had slipped multiple times, the estimated costs had climbed and climbed again, and the technical “teething” issues were still promising longer delays and higher costs. Canada had intended to buy 65 aircraft — in my opinion at least 33% less than the RCAF actually needed — at a “fixed” cost.

The F-35 is still years away from being in service in any air force, there’s no way to be sure that the government’s budget will be enough to buy the minimum number of aircraft, and the CF-18 isn’t getting any younger.

We need (some) new fighter aircraft in the next eight years, but the F-35 is no longer the automatic choice to fill that role.

There’s another root problem, and it’s also to be found in the 2012 federal budget. This document superstitiously relies on the notion that everything the feds do creates jobs. Every spending initiative in the budget creates jobs. Every departmental trim, and every restraint, ditto. Having gone through the budget, I wonder if Mr. Flaherty thinks a job is created when he sneezes. At the same time I was reading the budget, I was reviewing the federal government’s 2010 F-35 sales pitch — which, coincidentally, was the DND’s and Lockheed Martin’s sales pitch. Again, it’s all about “industrial benefits.” Lo and behold: the F-35 program creates jobs!

One name for this line of argument is “Military Keynesianism,” the idea that a brilliant and effective way to create jobs and boost the economy is to give folks like Lockheed Martin billions of dollars of public money. In the 1980s, the American public heard many Pentagon procurement stories concerning $40 staplers and $200 hammers, all part of a federal stimulus effort which by 1988 had tripled the nation’s deficit. There are distinctions to be made between this and the present case. Nonetheless, these staplers and hammers came to my mind as I dug down into the bogus F-35 procurement process and my shovel chipped the Reagan-era bedrock.

April 4, 2012

David Akin: The F-35 fiasco is now a boondoggle

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Government, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:21

Nobody in the government or the Department of National Defence comes off well in this politico-techno-bureaucratic mess:

The acquisition process to replace our aging CF-18 fighter jets can now officially be proclaimed as the F-35 boondoggle.

In a damning report Tuesday, Auditor General Michael Ferguson said the whole process in which the Harper Conservatives decided to allocate at least $25 billion over the next 20 years to buy 65 F-35 Lightning II “fifth generation” fighter jets was gummed up by Department of National Defence bureaucrats — and possibly air force officers — who flat out lied to their political masters and to Parliament about the costs and risks associated with the program.

The only good news is we have not yet spent that $25 billion or signed any contracts.

Canada has generally been well served by the civil service (I grit my teeth to say that, as I’m not at all fond of big government), if only in comparison to other countries. One of the better inheritances from Britain is the (relatively) non-political, impartial bureaucracy. In this case, however, the bureaucracy has failed, and failed spectacularly:

But the politicians, like any prime minister or cabinet minister before them, has to be able to rely on the bureaucracy to give them the straight goods.

That did not happen.

Here’s Ferguson in his report: “National Defence told parliamentarians (last year) that cost data provided by U.S. authorities had been validated by U.S. experts and partner countries which was not accurate at the time. At the time of its response, National Defence knew the costs were likely to increase but did not so inform parliamentarians.”

In other words, DND bureaucrats lied. Full stop. Period.

Here’s another paragraph from Ferguson: “Briefing materials did not inform senior decision-makers, central agencies, and the Minister [of National Defence] of the problems and associated risks of relying on the F-35 to replace the CF-18.”

And another: “We found that the ministers of National Defence and Industry Canada and those ministers on the Treasury Board were not fully informed (in 2006) about the procurement implications.”

I’ve been less-than-fully-supportive of the F-35 acquisition, as a quick perusal of F-35 related posts will show, but this is now much more important than the question of what aircraft (if any) the RCAF will be purchasing. It’s now a case of finding out how deep the rot is in the DND and whether the RCAF actively aided the deception. If so, heads must roll.

Update: MILNEWS.ca has a round-up of reporting on the Auditor General’s report, focusing on the F-35 program.

March 29, 2012

F-35 and the “bubbling skin” problem

Filed under: Cancon, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:25

Michael Byers and Stewart Webb report on the latest technical glitch to be reported in the F-35 development:

The ability of F-35s to avoid radar detection depends on a “fibre mat,” which is cured into the composite surfaces of the aircraft.

In December 2011, a test version of the F-35 for the first time achieved the design speed of Mach 1.6. According to Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week, the flight caused “peeling and bubbling” of the stealth coating on the horizontal tails and damage to the engine’s thermal panels, and the entire test fleet was subsequently limited to Mach 1.0.

Repairing and replacing stealth materials is a time- and technology-intensive process that reduces the “mission capable rate” of aircraft. Indeed, it has been reported by the U.S. Congressional Research Service that after five years of service the F-35’s sister plane, the F-22, has a mission capable rate of just 60%.

And then they touch on the issue that has been lurking below the surface for a while, regarding the small number of aircraft the RCAF will be able to afford (assuming the government goes through with the F-35 purchase):

If the F-35 has a similar mission capable rate, Canada will, at any given time, only be able to deploy approximately 44 of its planned 65 planes. When attrition through accidents is factored in — and Canada has lost 18 of its CF-18s since 1982 — we could soon have an available fleet of just 30-35 planes, or roughly half of what the Department of National Defence says we need.

That might be the crucial point on which the F-35 acquisition fails: no matter how good the aircraft are (and I believe they will eventually work through and fix all the major issues), we can’t afford enough of them. Even without taking on new missions, we need a certain minimum number of aircraft, and I thought 65 was low-balling that number. The alternatives are to buy some F-35’s and a larger number of less expensive planes like the Super Hornet, or skip the F-35 altogether and just buy a different aircraft. The problem with splitting the order is that what we’d save on reduced F-35 acquisition costs, we’d more than lose because the RCAF would have to maintain duplicate maintenance and training programs. Unlike the RAF or the USAF, the RCAF isn’t big enough to fly multiple models on an ongoing basis (and you know that the government can’t and won’t fund a larger air force budget).

March 26, 2012

Rick Mercer updates us on the status of the F-35

Filed under: Cancon, Humour, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:27

March 20, 2012

“You’d have to be blind and deaf not to know how much this project has gone off the rails”

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:22

In the National Post, John Ivison explains why he thinks the new Auditor-General will have a field day examining the F-35 project:

Alan Williams is a retired assistant deputy minister, responsible for procurement at DND in the early years of the F-35 project, and recently he shared his thoughts on the shortcomings of the tendering process with the Office of the Auditor-General. “The whole process was twisted to suit the needs of the military, with the acknowledgment and support of ministers. It was totally unacceptable,” he said.

He thinks the government should write a new statement of requirement and put the whole project out to an open competition.

“You could run a competition today and have it done within two years,” he said. “You’d have to be blind and deaf not to know how much this project has gone off the rails.”

He said that in his experience, maintenance costs on sophisticated military equipment run at two to three times acquisition costs. He believes the eventual cost to taxpayers for the F-35s is likely to be $25- to $30-billion — double the current government estimate.

It’s quite possible that the F-35 purchase was a bad idea, and that the military rigged the competition from the start. Not inevitable, but possible. The criticism of the military procurement process in the article is a bit over-done, especially here in Canada where almost any military spending has to be assessed primarily for political advantage and regional distribution before the actual military benefit or value to the taxpayers is taken into account. Every major project’s specifications are “tweaked” to meet certain overriding criteria.

To oversimplify, if the item in question is available from two different suppliers that provide effectively the same function, tacking on a secondary requirement that only one of the suppliers can readily meet distorts the process to favour that supplier. It’s not usually that blatant, but if it happens when the item in question is as simple as network cable or packaging material or socks, you can be certain that it happens for multi-billion dollar purchases whose specifications are the size of paperback novels.

March 13, 2012

Yet another straw in the wind on Canada’s F-35 plans

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:56

An article by Murray Brewster, published in the Winnipeg Free Press looks at more signs that Canada may not be as tightly bound to their F-35 purchase plans:

The point man on the F-35 stealth fighter purchase says the Conservative government has not ruled out abandoning the troubled project.

“We have not, as yet, discounted the possibility, of course, of backing out of any of the program,” Julian Fantino associate defence minister, told the Commons defence committee on Tuesday.

He made the comment after a series of pointed questions from both opposition parties.

Fantino said the government is still committed to buying the radar-evading jet, but no contract has been signed.

The Conservatives still believe the high-tech jet is the best choice to replace the aging CF-18s, but the minister suggested they are taking a cautious approach.

None of the other nine allied nations involved in the program has yet withdrawn and the minister said: “We are not.”

[. . .]

In months of questioning in the House of Commons, Fantino has insisted there is no need for a backup plan in case of further delays in the project as the manufacturer works out software and design glitches.

But on Tuesday, he told the committee he was waiting for defence officials to prepare alternate scenarios to the F-35 deal, the so-called Plan B that opposition parties have demanded.

March 7, 2012

Veterans Affairs to face disproportionally big cuts in federal budget

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Cancon, Economics, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:32

That’s what Sean Bruyea thinks. Here’s his piece in the Globe & Mail:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls enlisting in the military the “highest form of public service.” Why then is Veterans Affairs, the department which cares for the Canadian Forces when its members are injured, facing the largest proportional cuts of any other public-service department?

The budget axe has been looming over all federal departments. The current “strategic and operational review” is a euphemism for reigning in a federal public service that is out of control. In the last 10 years, the core public service has grown by 34 per cent (versus 12 per cent at Veterans Affairs) and total government program expenses have swelled by 84 per cent (versus 67 per cent at Veterans Affairs).

Perhaps most galling for Canadians who have passed through two recessions in two decades and have seen no real growth in their earnings, public service salaries have increased by 22 per cent over and above inflation.

Few could credibly argue against the need for Ottawa to be managed better.

February 23, 2012

Canada considers delaying F-35 aircraft order

Filed under: Cancon, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:38

In the Globe & Mail, Steven Chase on the Canadian government’s uncomfortable position on the RCAF’s next generation fighter aircraft:

The Canadian government is investigating whether it can squeeze more life out of its aging CF-18 fighters as it takes stock of decisions by cash-strapped allies to delay or trim orders for the replacement F-35 Lightning jet.

The Harper government must now decide whether there’s a benefit to postponing part of Canada’s order of 65 jets so that its Lightning fighter bombers are built in the same years as the bulk of orders placed by other countries — when the production cost is lower.

[. . .]

The Canadian government had planned to start taking delivery of new F-35 fighter bombers in 2016 or 2017 and has publicly described 2020 as the retirement date for most of its fleet of CF-18 Hornets.

A government official with knowledge of the file said the military is now assessing whether 2020 is the absolute maximum life expectancy for the Hornets or whether there’s a little bit more flying time left in the jets — planes purchased between 1984 and 1988.

Canada has already retrofitted the CF-18s in order to make them last until 2020.

December 27, 2011

RCAF reportedly considering expansion of northern base

Filed under: Cancon, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:51

David Pugliese on the possible upgrade of air force facilities in the far north:

The Royal Canadian Air Force has looked at a major expansion at Resolute Bay, Nunavut, as it considers transforming it into a key base for Arctic operations, according to documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen.

The construction of a 3,000-metre paved runway, hangars, fuel installations and other infrastructure has been proposed for the future as part of an effort to support government and military operations in the North.

Resolute Bay in Nunavut would be able to provide a logistics site for search-and-rescue operations as well as a base for strategic refuelling aircraft, according to the briefing from the Arctic Management Office at 1 Canadian Air Division, the air force’s Winnipeg-based command and control division. The briefing was presented in June 2010 and recently released by the Defence Department under the Access to Information law.

[. . .]

The RCAF briefing also examined establishing a forward operating base on central Ellesmere Island by expanding the current facilities at Eureka, Nunavut. That initiative proposed adding new facilities and turning the location into a regional asset for government departments. Also included in the “FOB Eureka” concept is the proposal that the existing airfield be expanded.

Creating a Forward Operating Base Eureka could allow the military to downsize or rebuild the existing Canadian Forces Station Alert, according to the presentation.

CFS Alert is on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island and is used for the interception of communications.

The presentation noted that Eureka would be easier to sustain as it could be resupplied by sea while Alert has to be resupplied by air. Making Eureka the main Canadian Forces “very high” Arctic station would also allow the military to separate the missions of sovereignty enforcement and the role of communications intercepts, it added.

October 28, 2011

The F-35 project “just seems like it’s slowly unravelling”

Filed under: Cancon, Military, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:39

The latest in a long series of warnings about the spendy-and-getting-spendier-every-day F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project:

The Conservative government’s controversial F-35 jet fighter project, plagued by delays, cost overruns and now economic turmoil in Europe, is at growing risk of being sharply curtailed or shelved — the defence minister’s protestations notwithstanding.

“It just seems like it’s slowly unravelling,” said an industry insider who specializes in aircraft procurement. “It’s a mess.”

Peter MacKay has doggedly championed the Royal Canadian Air Force plan to purchase 65 “fifth-generation” Lockheed Martin Lightning stealth fighters to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s. Last week MacKay sought, with only limited success, to deflect reports that the first batch of planes built by Lockheed will be incapable of communicating in Canada’s far North.

This minister has a knack for projecting blithe confidence. But in this instance he is increasingly offside with other members of the cabinet and with the Prime Minister’s Office, sources familiar with the situation say.

“They expected a whole bunch of kudos for doing (the F-35),” said one. “They believed this was win-win, industrially, that everybody would be happy it has kind of crept in that it just ain’t so.”

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