Last week was not a good one for supporters of this country’s plan to purchase 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes (JSF). First, negative news surfaced on the JSF’s price, with Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer projecting that the total development purchase and maintenance costs could hit $30 billion — $12 billion more than previous Conservative government estimates. The performance picture was equally unrosy, as electrical generator problems grounded the small JSF fleet currently making test flights out of Edwards Air Force Base (Kern County, Calif.).
The political debate over the JSF in Canada has focused heavily on the price tag, the alleged economic and industrial benefits, and the non-competitive tendering process. Occasionally, a politician, pundit or blogger will also make an argument about whether the JSF, also known as the Lightning II, is indeed the plane that will best serve the future needs of the Canadian Forces. The latest models of the F/A-18 Super Hornet (successor to our long-in-the-stinger CF-18s), the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Saab Gripen NG have all been proposed as more economical alternatives.
Leaving aside the serious price and performance questions about the JSF, arguments regarding the plane’s military pros and cons can be hard to grasp for those of us who are not future-warfare experts. Fortunately, a slightly more mundane purchasing dilemma can stand in as a rough approximation for some aspects of the JSF debate.
Have you been thinking about buying an iPad? Or are you like Slate’s John Swansberg: a new and unhappy iPad owner?
Like the iPad, the JSF is the leading-edge new gadget that all the cool kids — in this case, the US Navy, Marines, and Air Force, as well as Australian, UK, and other assorted NATO forces — were getting last year. Even at that time, the UK announced it would reduce its order of the planes; other European development partners have since showed cold feet. One key argument in favour of the JSF was inter-operability with allied forces. When Canada deploys its military overseas, it almost always does so as part of a large international joint operation. Clearly, it’s advantageous if our allies’ maintenance and technical support crews are already familiar with the equipment we fly. If fewer allies fly the high-tech Lightning II, inter-operability will become a problem rather than an advantage.
Maybe what we really need is a netbook.
Anyone who has to compose large chunks of text always asks the following about the iPad: Where can I get an external keyboard? Defenders counter that the iPad is not designed for word processing. It’s an intuitive, sleek, surfing-media-art machine, driven by cutting-edge touch-screen technology.
For JSF critics, the plane’s stealth capabilities are as impressive as the iPad’s ability to let you watch Avatar on a tiny screen as you hang from a strap on the subway. It’s neat — but why would you ever really need to do that? In addition, as the future of warfare becomes increasingly asymmetrical, what is the use of stealth tech? Small bands of Taliban-style insurgents don’t hike through mountain ranges or jungles carrying long-range radar and surface-to-air missile batteries. Plus, since the JSF has only a single engine, it could crash in the kinds of engine-failure situations — for instance, long Arctic patrols — that the twin-engined F-18 has been proven to survive. A second engine, like an external keyboard, may prove to be the simple-but-critically lacking feature that supersedes all the other flashy high-tech features combined.
Or, maybe we won’t know what we’ll use it for until we have one.
The trick with the JSF, as with the iPad, is that it the machine is legitimate, evolving future tech. Every suggested alternative is an upgrade to an existing, theoretically doomed-to-be-redundant system. Military planners are considering a deployment window stretching to 2060, and it is nigh-impossible to know what will truly be needed at that point. Conventional warfare between major powers could make a resurgence — Canada could get into a shooting war with the Danes over Hans Island, or with Brazil, India, or Indonesia over some resource or regional alliance. In any of those scenarios, a super-advanced stealth fighter would be a must-have for any serious player.
Just like Angry Birds.