Politics doesn’t make for a good flight plan

For months the media has beaten the dead horse that is the funding confusion surrounding Canada’s F-35 purchase.

Seemingly every day there’s a different figure floating around concerning overall cost, and training.  The plane comes with engines, then it doesn’t.  It can communicate with ground troops, and then it can’t, and then maybe it can again.

In the process of trying to cover a very simple story, the media has focused so entirely on digging the truth out of the funding for the new planes that they’ve forgotten to look at the merits of the plane itself.

In justifying the purchase, the Conservative government has focused on how useful the F-35 will be for enhancing Canada’s military role both domestically and abroad.  But instead of asking just how the plane would serve to enhance the military, the focus remains on how much it will cost the taxpayer to secure such a massive enhancement.

While everyone wants to believe that such a large technological leap for Canada’s air force will benefit the country, the facts of the plane’s capabilities are being ignored.

The Conservatives consistently name two ways the F-35 will benefit Canada – it will provide Canada with a much desired ability to enforce arctic sovereignty and it will allow Canada the flexibility to participate in international military missions.  Unfortunately, there are glaring factual inaccuracies in these assertions.

In reality, the plane is unlikely to secure Canada’s sovereignty in the arctic.  The range of the plane simply does not allow it to fill that mission.  Canada’s most northerly airstrips used for military purposes are Cold Lake in Alberta, and Yellowknife.  While Cold Lake has full military capabilities, the air strip in Yellowknife does not.

If the plan was to base at least some of the planes in Yellowknife, the airport there would require some significant upgrades to hangers, fuelling capabilities and other logistical aspects of housing such a high tech plane in such a remote place.  The cost of moving the planes to Yellowknife isn’t where the cost ends.

The cost of housing the planes at Cold Lake is actually substantially less, but it creates its own set of difficulties given the location of the base.

In both cases, replacement parts would likely have to be flown in.  That may not seem like a big deal, but it does come at a significant cost to the Canadian military.

Both bases are also located too far to the south to actually impact sovereignty in the arctic.  With an effective combat range of just 584 nautical miles, there is simply no way for the planes to conduct substantial sorties into the northern most regions of the arctic.

As a result, Canada has to seriously consider construction new bases well above the Arctic circle.  The cost of constructing a base with the ability to house the F-35 is no laughing matter.  The runway and hangers would be built on permafrost, an engineering issue that complicates what would otherwise seem like a simple task.  Barracks would have to built.  Soldiers would have to be housed.  Groceries and goods would have to be flown into the base to support the military and civilian staff.  It’s an incredibly costly proposal.

In all likelihood, Canada would have to coordinate their arctic sovereignty missions with the US air force and coordinate for a US refuelling plane to remain on station in order to support the Canadian fighters.  If the goal was sovereignty, it’s a self defeating mission as soon as another sovereign nation is required to assist.

The same problem holds true for international missions.  Canada doesn’t have carriers that will transport the planes to the Mediterranean or the Gulf of Aden or the Gulf of Bengal.  That means Canada is dependant on allied countries allowing Canada to utilize airports, and fuel capabilities just to move the planes into position to partake in a military mission.  While Canada certainly wouldn’t be paying commercial rates on fuel and base rental, it’s still a very expensive proposition for a plane with such a limited range.

The cost of purchasing the F-35 doesn’t stop at buying the planes at all.  Operating a plane that doesn’t meet the requirements it is being asked to meet stands to be incredibly expensive.

But the cost isn’t the best way to frame that reality.  The fact that the plane fails to enhance Canada’s military capabilities domestically or abroad without stretching the defence budget to unrecognizable levels for Canada should be where the questions start and end.

The F-35 does not work for Canada’s needs.  It never will.  No matter how long pilots train in Florida.  No matter whether a communications upgrade will allow the plane to communicate in the arctic.  It just won’t work.