F-35 stealth fighter purchase faces challenges in Canada and abroad

FILE -This undated photo provided by Northrop Grumman Corp., shows a pre-production model of the F-35 Joint Strike …

The mass purchase of Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jets by the U.S., Canada and their allies hasn't exactly gone according to plan and could soon face even more setbacks.

The latest hiccup in the near-boondoggle is a crack found in the stealth fighter's turbine fan which has caused delays, although the company says it will not hinder the delivery of fighter jets to the collection of buyers. At least, no more than they already have been delayed.

The purchase has been struck by additional problems in Canada, where the Conservative government has restarted the purchasing process over complaints that the F-35 program was pushed through and not well considered.

The Canadian reset has allowed Lockheed Martin's competitors to pitch alternatives, and Boeing has not wasted its chance, pushing hard to win the lucrative contract.

CBC News reports that Boeing is pressing the government to switch its purchase order to its own Super Hornet, considered an economical alternative to the F-35 stealth fighter.

[ Related: Boeing touts fighter jet to rival F-35 — at half the price ]

Boeing representatives have dismissed the F-35 as a "shiny brochure of promises" that has yet to be perfected in reality. "We call it competing with a paper airplane," test pilot Ricardo Traven told CBC News.

Numbers obtained by the network suggest the Super Hornets would cost $55 million per jet — half the $110 million per-jet price tag Canada is currently set to spend on the F-35. Operating cost comparisons show similar results, with the Super Hornets costing $16,000 an hour to fly. Again, half of what the F-35 is believed to cost to operate.

It’s a total savings of about $23 billion.

The Conservative government has been set on replacing its current stable of CF-18 fighters, and stubbornly clung to its plan to buy 65 expensive F-35s until last year, when they agreed to re-open the contract search amid public pressure.

So why wouldn't the government choose to go with the cost-efficient alternative?

Their primary argument is that the F-35 has stealth technology, while the alternatives do not. Although Canada's need for stealth fighters is a question worth debating. In fact, Boeing argues that the F-35 gives up maneuverability to improve its stealth feature, a concession that would not benefit the Canada military's often-icy landings.

[ More Brew: F-35 purchase alive and dead as Canada considers options ]

But the fact is, it is not just Canada who has balked since the deal was first formed. In 2010, Canada entered into a mass purchasing plan with the U.S., Australia and as many as eight other countries to save money on the cost of the fighter jets. Essentially, the more they buy the lower the per-jet cost will be.

This week, Australia expressed confidence in its plan to purchase F-35 fighter jets, but suggested they could end up buying less than 70 of the 100 they had originally intended. And there is some political pressure to scrap the deal entirely.

Meantime, Pier Luigi Bersani, Italy’s incumbent Prime Minister, has said he would consider pulling back from the F-35 purchase as well. Other countries, including Britain, have also suggested they could reduce the number of fighter jets they will purchase.

As countries pull out or scale back their purchases, the cost of doing business increases for those remaining.

And with America facing looming cuts to its massive defence budget, one wonders what will happen to the more than 2,000 new fighter jets it is poised to add to its air force, navy and marine corps.

The military remains set on buying the fighters despite the latest setbacks, which is expected to cost the U.S. $1 trillion over the lifetime of the planes.

But the U.S. economy is in a bad way, and the military faces a spending freeze. It could consider scrapping the F-35 purchase entirely, according to Newsweek, which identified the purchase as one of five big buys that could be axed to avoid jeopardizing across-the-board cuts.

Newsweek’s Paul Barrett writes:

The F-35 was supposed to produce state-of-the-art stealth jets. It is seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over cost estimates. At almost $400 billion, the F-35 has become the most expensive weapons system in U.S. history and one that offers only marginal improvements over existing aircraft, according to Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit policy institute in Washington.

With or without the U.S. jumping off the bandwagon, the F-35 purchase faces tough questions here in Canada. Which is why Boeing smells blood and has been pushing so hard to be considered the cheap alternative.

That is about as attractive as stealth technology these days.