It appears Canada will soon be making one of the biggest dollar value purchases for its military in history - a $16 billion purchase of 65 F-35 Lightning II fighter jets.
Wow, that's a lot of money. Enough to buy, oh, about three aircraft carriers (minus the aircraft).
According to the Globe and Mail, "The purchase of F-35 Lightning II fighter jets is one of the biggest military projects in Canadian history, almost equal in size to the entire 2006 plan to acquire more than 2,000 trucks, 21 transport planes, 16 heavy helicopters and three ships for the Canadian Forces."
Put another way, including training and maintenance, the all-in cost is pegged at about $246 million an aircraft. The planes themselves would cost $9 billion, or about $138 million each.
While the dollars are big, the numbers are not. Sixty-five fighter planes is not large by any stretch. Indeed, it is so low as to be effectively incapable of doing what we may require of them. We are the second largest landmass on earth, and when you consider you need some aircraft for training, and several down for repairs/maintenance at any given time, you're not going to have a lot of birds left to actually do anything, like protect our skies.
The media notes these 65 planes will replace the current fleet of 80 CF-18A Hornets. But what they are not mentioning is the fleet was already chopped by over one third. We used to have 138 Hornets. Several years ago that was reduced to 80, because the planes were getting worn out. Plus there was this little thing of the occasional crash. Flying 50 feet off the deck near the speed of sound in a high performance aircraft means eventually some will go splat. According to Wikipedia, 16 CF-18s have been lost to crashes so far. If we lose 16 F-35s over the next 20 or so years, that will put us down to just 49 aircraft, at a time when advanced age will mean more time required for maintenance. Will we have enough planes to put in the air if and when we actually need them?
In comparison, we had 639 CF-100 Canucks in the 1950s, 200 CF-104 Starfighters, 132 F-101 Voodoos in the 1960s and 135 CF-5s in the 1970s. The Cold War may be over, but our nation didn't get any smaller.
Forget about deploying overseas ever again. We used to have fighters based in Germany to protect us from the big bad Soviets. Then we sent a squadron of 26 planes to fight in the Gulf War in 1991, something we could never do again. That would be 40 per cent of our new F-35 fleet.
In 1999, 18 planes flew out of Aviano, Italy, to fight in the Kosovo conflict. Notice how the number dropped? Next time we're needed overseas, we'll be sending over airmen with paper airplanes.
Oh, sure, you can do more with more advanced planes. One plane carrying a load of smart GPS- or laser-guided bombs can be more effective than an entire squadron or wing of Second World War Lancasters in taking out a target. But quantity has a quality all of its own. You can't be in two places at once. If we need those fighters here, in Canada, then they cannot be elsewhere, exerting our collective will.
What it effectively means is that by buying such an expensive aircraft, we have priced ourselves out of the market to doing anything overseas with said aircraft. It's a nice, expensive way of staying out of foreign wars, at least with our air force.
The other thing we need to realize is that any wars we fight in the future will be done with the equipment we have on hand. During the Second World War, new fighters were being developed on a continual basis, and could be rolled out and in the air in a few scant years. During the early years of the Cold War, we went through three generations of jet fighters from the early 1950s until the 1970s. The fourth generation, F-14s, F-15s, F16s and F-18s, were developed in the 1970s, and deployed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They are now reaching the end of their service lives 30+ years later. The F-35 has been in development since 1996, and we might have our first Canadian birds by 2016. We'll be flying those until long after I retire.
It's good to see we are going to have some sort of air capability in the future. However, its size will be so miniscule, it's a token ability, at best.
- Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.