Earlier this year, the Royal Air Force reduced from 138 to 48 the number of F-35 fighter jets it will buy. There have been subsequent statements that additional F-35s could be ordered in 2025, but for now the order has been reduced by almost two-thirds.
On June 23, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace stated he wanted to see progress on controlling the maintenance costs for the F-35.
Wallace warned: “I’m not in the business of giving a blank check to contractors if they don’t play their part in cost controls.”
Now, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the United States says: “We recommended, among other things, that Congress consider making future F-35 acquisitions contingent on progress reducing sustainment costs.”
U.S. Air Force officials have said that unless sustainment costs decrease, “the service’s only available remaining options to meet the affordability constraints are to reduce the total number of F-35A aircraft they plan to purchase, or to reduce the aircraft’s planned flying hours.”
Those sustainment costs can be as high as $38,000 an hour.
Stars and Stripes further notes the U.S. plans to buy 2,500 F-35s with an estimated life cycle cost exceeding $1.7 trillion, of which $1.3 trillion of those costs are related to operating and sustaining the aircraft.
The GAO says that is a $150 billion increase over 2012 estimates.
Canada’s plan to spend billions on fighter jets
To date, there have been no public statements from Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan about the sustainment costs of the F-35 fighter jet.
His government has said the purchase cost of a fleet of 88 new fighter jets will be between $15-19 billion but has not put a dollar figure on the sustainment costs. The Government of Canada’s future fighter capability project website is silent on this crucial issue.
The No Fighter Jet coalition has estimated that $19.1 billion in sustainment costs should be added to the sticker price of new fighter jets.
Parliamentary Secretary to the defence minister Anita Vandenbeld has stated the selection of a fighter jet is anticipated in early 2022 and that the contract is expected to be awarded in late 2022. She has not indicated if or when there would be a public disclosure of the sustainment costs of the F-35 fighter jets or the other two aircraft under consideration.
A report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer could help to answer this question, but generally takes between three to six months to produce. That leaves little time in Sajjan and Vandenbeld’s timeline for public disclosure and debate on the sustainment costs that the United States and the United Kingdom are now grappling with.
A blank cheque approach that focuses on the sticker cost of a fighter jet but not its sustainment costs may be related to the Government of Canada’s stated intention to spend more than half-a-trillion dollars on the military over the next 20 years.
The promise is that the money will be there.
There is a fuller discussion to be had about the offensive capability of fighter jets, their environmental impacts, and the Indigenous lands on which they are stationed, but basic transparency on the billions to be spent on sustainment costs is also needed.
With an election call expected as early as August 9, the question of sustainment costs is likely to be asked first on the campaign trail than in the House of Commons.
Brent Patterson is the executive director of Peace Brigades International-Canada. You can follow them at @PBIcanada.
Image: Harjit Sajjan and Anita Vandenbeld/Wikimedia Commons