F-35 vs. iPad

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.

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Images courtesy of blueforce4116 and Cem K.

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5 thoughts on “F-35 vs. iPad

  1. Holy Christ, a REAL article on Daily XY??! Well researched, well reasoned, well written, engaging and entertaining, and even — dare I say — *smart*? Did you guys run out of 3-paragraph fluff pieces by bimbos telling us to buy them more drinks and have to hire a real writer? Seriously, bravo, dear author. You’ve saved your publication from my inbox’s unsubscribe trashcan. Editors: double this guy’s pay with the money you’re wasting on said bimbos.

  2. The article is a clever analogy, right until this statement: “The trick with the JSF, as with the iPad, is that it the machine is legitimate, evolving future tech”

    Not at all. The iPad was; the JSF, as shown by the purchasing decisions of many allies, is just a new mousetrap. Better than the last one, true, but not a game changer and, as you point out, but the mice aren’t getting any faster.

  3. You forgot one of the biggest criteria if we are to continue with the Apple/F35 analogy, that is, an iPad is simply a “want”. The F35 is pretty nifty, but if you match the operational requirements of Canada you’ll quickly realize just how useless the F35 would be for Canada.

    It’d be like the pizza delivery guy who wants to deliver pizza with a Bugatti Veyron, except he doesn’t have the budget for it, and the fact that his delivery area so happens to be completely covered in ice. Suffice to say, wicked pissah awesome for pizza guy to have a Veyron to deliver pizzas with, but utterly useless as he wouldn’t even be able to use it.

  4. Definitely an interesting take on this purchase but a bit simplistic comparing an fifth generation multi-role fighter to the latest gadget from apple. I mean the debate over single vs. multi-engine has points for each side, Reliability of engines these days is a lot greater than in the 60-70’s when that idea caught on. Maintenance on two engines means that the time down vs time it could be flying is greater and costs more in parts. Twice as likely for something to go wrong. It is heavier therefore needs to be bigger and carry more fuel. The Saab Gripen is a single and seems to do just fine, as does the F-16 (the backbone of the USAF).

    If you really want to fix the problem let’s lose some of the politics and get us the equipment that works. And while we’re at it, give us some more flying time cause I’m barely hitting my minimums to stay current. Have to watch the budget when filling up the tank at the Petro Can… And no we don’t get to keep the points….

  5. From all the reviews done on the F35, it does not meet Canada’s operational requirements, and it is clearly not something Canada needs. Canada does not need ‘first strike’ fighters. It needs long range fighters capable of defending our vast airspace. That’s the reasoning behind needing 2 engined fighters. Plus stealth technology has and will continue to be beaten, it’s not something to base a $30 billion purchase on (which from what I know will only benefit US pockets).

    So I propose a compromise. Let’s buy about 25 F35s to placate the politicians and their cronies, and use the rest of the money to buy Super Hornets. Although I’d prefer the European planes, I would like to keep as much money in Canada as possible which I believe contracting the Super Hornets would do.

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