U.S. Analyst Warns Canada to Expect Price Hikes for F-35s
Canada will likely pay more than twice the estimated cost for new F-35 fighters, a United States defense analyst said here on Tuesday.
Winslow Wheeler, of the Center for Defense Information in Washington D.C., made that claim at a news conference here at the height of a federal election campaign.
Three months ago, he issued the same warning at a Parliamentary hearing into the purchase of the fighters, which will replace Canada's fleet of F-18 twin engine jets.
Wheeler estimates the cost of Canada's 65 new F-35s at about 148 million Canadian dollars (about 153.7 million U.S. dollars) each. The Conservative government, which is defending its deal during the campaign, says the F-35s will cost about 75 million per airplane.
The opposition Liberal Party says it wants to put the fighter deal open to competitive bids to try to keep costs down. The Conservatives want to buy the F-35 from Lockheed Martin without considering the bids of other companies.
Wheeler spent 30 years working as a military analyst for U.S. General Accounting Office, which oversees government spending.
"Nobody on this earth is going to be buying F-35s in flyable condition at 75 million collars a copy. That's not in the cards," Wheeler said. He suggested it is unlikely Canada would get an F-35 with a working engine at the cost the government is projecting.
"This airplane is nothing to write home about," said Wheeler. He said he does not believe the aircraft performs as well as its manufacturers and the Pentagon claim, and believes the fighter is "a gigantic performance disappointment."
"You're getting an underperforming airplane for a huge amount of money," he said.
Wheeler said most of the additional cost of the plane will come from maintenance, including frequent trips back to Lockheed Martin factories to fix technical glitches.
The F-35 became an issue in Canadian politics last summer when the Conservative government announced it was buying the aircraft without asking for competitive bids. Canada had already paid out money into the F-35 project during the development stage, which began in 1996 when the Liberals were in power.
Just before the election, which was set on May 2, and was called on March 26, Canada's Parliamentary Budget Officer, who monitors government spending, said the real cost of the aircraft would likely be about 148 million per plane after maintenance costs were factored in over the long term.
At the government's price or the critics' estimates, the F-35 is the biggest military procurement deal in Canadian history.
"It is therefore, I believe, very reasonable to expect that the parliamentary budget officer's higher estimate of 148 million per airplane -- if and when you get around to buying these things -- is by far and away the most accurate estimate. It's a complete airplane," Wheeler said.
The government estimates the overall cost to taxpayers would be about 15 billion over 20 years, including maintenance costs. That estimate is based on a unit price of 75 million per plane.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has been campaigning over the past 10 days against the deal, saying the money could be better spent on education, health care and lower taxes for Canadians.
Wheeler says he agrees with Ignatieff's position on the fighters.
"Compete several procurement-ready prototypes and then make a decision. That's the way some of our most successful airplanes were done," he said. "You have plenty of time to do that, your CF- 18s are going to be around for a few more years."
The F-35 has been criticized by politicians and analysts in the U.S. and Europe. The short take-off version of the jets was put on probation by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates because of technical difficulties.
On March 9, a generator failure grounded the entire U.S. fleet of 10 F-35 fighter planes for up to 15 days. Because of cost increases and technical problems with the planes, the U.S. Defense Department has had to restructure the Joint Strike Force program since 2009.
"As an American, this program should be terminated immediately. It's unaffordable and the performance is unacceptable already. We need to start over and form a competitive fly before you buy selection," he said.
Canada is scheduled to start paying for the planes in 2014. It should get the first jet in 2016. (1 U.S. dollar = 0.963196 Canadian dollars)