On the F-35, What Does Canada Know That the U.S. Doesn't?

An important byproduct of the Liberal Party's victory in the Canadian election this week is the decision to cancel the proposed purchase of the F-35 combat aircraft.

The F-35 buy has long been a point of contention in Canada, but up until this week the program had survived a series of political challenges. Critics of the deal questioned the need for the planes, as well as their immense cost. Their critique was further strengthened by charges that the bidding process was manipulated to favor the F-35.

While Canada's proposed purchase of 65 F-35s was small relative to the more than 2,400 the Pentagon is proposing to buy, it was expensive nonetheless. Even at the original projected cost of roughly $15 billion the F-35s would have been a major cost for the Canadian taxpayer. But when an independent auditor put the total program cost at over $45 billion, it became clear that the F-35 program would consume a substantial percentage of Canada's military budget for years to come.

The first question raised by the Canadian decision is whether it will have a ripple effect on other nations that are partners in the program. The state of Italy's economy makes it unlikely that it will be able to purchase the more than 90 planes it has pledged to buy; nor is Turkey likely to have the funds to buy 100 F-35s given the other demands on its treasury. We will have to wait and see whether the Canadian decision is a unique event or the start of a trend.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the cost issue that was so pivotal in Canada is equally relevant. At a cost of nearly $400 billion for procurement and $1 trillion for maintenance over its lifetime, the F-35 is the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the Pentagon. Under current plans it will consume the lion's share of the Air Force's aircraft procurement budget from now through the mid-2030s, even as the service seeks to buy a new bomber, a new aerial refueling tanker, and a new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Something will have to give.

In addition, the Navy has never been enthusiastic about buying its version of the F-35. And a recent report from the Center for a New American Security has proposed trimming or canceling the Navy's F-35 program in favor of investments in a new generation of drones.

If the F-35 was a state-of-the-art plane that provided unparalleled capabilities while fulfilling a clear need, perhaps it would be worth the cost. But it is none of these things. In fact, as a recent study by the National Security Network has shown, the F-35 will be an inferior aircraft even if it performs as advertised. In fact, the authors of the NSN report describe the F-35 as "an albatross of an acquisition program." The NSN summarizes its major findings as follows:

The F-35 will find itself outmaneuvered, outgunned, out of range, and visible to enemy sensors... full investment in the F-35 would be to place a bad trillion-dollar bet on the future of airpower based on flawed assumptions and an underperforming aircraft.

While the U.S. and Canadian security situations are clearly different, there is one common thread -- the importance of a thorough national debate about the cost of and need for the F-35.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.