Rising costs and delays are again plaguing development of the next generation fighter aircraft that the Harper government is buying from the United States – but Canada’s Defence Minister insists this country’s F-35 jet order remains unaffected by these “glitches.”
U.S. aircraft maker Lockheed Martin’s CEO warned this week that development of the F-35s will likely take more time and money to complete. News reports from Washington suggest the delay could add as much as three years and $5-billion to the development phase of the jet fighter.
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Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Lockheed Martin has assured his department that these problems are not afflicting the basic version of the F-35 fighter that Canada has ordered. The two other types of F-35s, one suited for short vertical takeoff and landings – like a “jump jet” – and one designed for air carriers, are where the trouble is cropping up, he suggested.
“What our department officials are telling us – who are in direct contact with Lockheed – is that this will not affect the Canadian costs nor will it affect delivery time,” the minister said in an interview.
“We are being told that the conventional aircraft is on time and on budget.”
The Harper government has found few defenders outside of the aerospace and defence communities for a controversial decision in July to commit to buying 65 new fighter jets without a competitive bidding process. The purchase will require an initial commitment of $9-billion and an estimated $7-billion in the decades ahead for support and maintenance.
Opposition parties have also attacked the timing, saying Ottawa should not be committing to $16-billion in spending while it is mired in hefty deficits and the country faces a slowing economic recovery.
But Mr. MacKay said Canada is protected from cost overruns in the research and development of the F-35 Lightning. Canada, the United States and other allies are ordering the planes together to keep costs down. Under the U.S.-led deal, Washington covers rising development cost increases, which Department of Defence officials estimate has exceeded the budgeted plan by $20-billion (U.S.) over the past decade.
“That’s all borne by the United States,” Mr. MacKay said. “Even some of these glitches, let’s say, [they] are experiencing are still part of that development.”
The Canadian government says the production cost of each F-35 will average $74.5-million (U.S.) – but other obligations such as spare parts, simulators, and program management costs mean that the full package works out to $138-million per jet. It also estimates the annual maintenance price tag for the jets will total $250-million, on par with the current bill for the aging CF-18 planes.
But an analyst at Project Ploughshares, a peace group, released a new report charging the U.S. government and its allies are overstating the number of F-35 planes to be ordered by as much as 40 per cent. Ken Epp suggests this means the production cost of each jet will be far higher.
Mr. MacKay insisted, however, that Canada is buying its planes at a time when the orders will be especially numerous, meaning the production cost per plane will be the most advantageous.
The single seat F/A-18E and two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornets carry over the name and design concept of the original F/A-18, but have been extensively redesigned. The Super Hornet has a new, 25% larger airframe, larger rectangular air intakes, more powerful GE F414 engines based on F/A-18’s F404, and upgraded avionics suite. The aircraft is in production and has equipped 22 squadrons. The EA-18G Growler is an electronic warfare version of the two-seat F/A-18F, which entered production in 2007. The Growler will replace the Navy’s EA-6B Prowler.
Australia is the only nation other than the United States to operate the Super Hornet.