Two From the 3Ds

First, on the F-35, the Inspector General disagrees with the Pentagon and Lockheed on quality assurance.

Second, prospects for reforming Canadian defence procurement- the Harper government is trying to solve problems that originated from poor policy with bureaucracy.

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RCAF Priorities Outlined to Montreal Industry

In an address to Montreal aerospace industry representatives on Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Yvan Blondin, Commander of the RCAF, outlined the future procurement priorities of the Air Force, which go well beyond fighter replacement. The general touched on a variety of subjects, ranging from the effects of the delays in procuring CH-148 Cyclone helicopters to the force’s expanded presence in the Arctic. His message for Canadian industry was clear: find ways for the Air Force to save money.

One avenue for saving money prominent in the talk was the improvement and expanded use of flight simulators. This accords with some of Blondin’s previous comments that reducing maintenance costs and prolonging the service life of the current fighter fleet might involve less flying time.

Future capital acquisitions mentioned included an unspecified number of drones- from the context, it was clear that these were to be more than the reconnaissance drones Canada already uses- search and rescue transport aircraft (a role separate from the CH-149 recently acquired), and a number of disposable stores acquisitions, including new sonobuoys and torpedoes. The search and rescue and anti-submarine equipment particularly fill definite gaps. Canada is notorious for its poor search and rescue coverage given its territory, and transport and rescue squadrons field some fairly old airframes. Likewise, Canada still uses the Cold War-vintage Mk.46 torpedo.

It was difficult to get a sense of Gen. Blondin’s direction for the force from the talk. While he did indicate that a major reassessment of Air Force doctrine was underway internally, little that was really new seemed to enter into the priorities he presented. Gen. Blondin has been a supporter of the F-35 program, albeit hedging his bets a little more than his predecessor.

What was most interesting about the evening was the attitude among the industry representatives. They seem to recognise that this government’s procurement plans are likely to face re-evaluation, particularly the F-35 purchase. Several of these companies manufacture components for the F-35, but they seem fairly well aware of that program’s cost problems, and are unfazed by the prospect of having to reorient. One company which manufactures F-35 components, for example, also has contracts for the Super Hornet, the C-130 and a number of Sikorsky helicopters, as well as a civil aviation business line. The Canadian aerospace industry tends to specialise in discrete components, such as landing gear and avionics, and so generally have a wide pool of programs and clients in both military and civil aviation to balance out problems with any particular program.

Fighter Procurement News- India, Netherlands

India’s much-heralded purchase of the Dassault Rafale fighter, critical for closing a yawning gap in India’s force structure left by the retirement of MiG-21s and other older aircraft, is moving forward at a snail’s pace, as India contemplates an expensive integration of Russian missiles for the platform. Never mind that India has a large enough air force to comfortably use two sets of ordinance (as they already do with their Mirage fleet), or that having two ordinance sets provides a nice insurance against flaws in any one system, integration of new weapons and the consequent delay in procuring the fighters could well cost more than maintaining two sets of ordinance.

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The Dutch government, in a stroke of illogic that beggars belief, has decided to purchase only 37 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters over the next five years, while selling their new naval support ships. The expensive F-35 was always going to cripple Dutch force structure and defence procurement, but it seems the government is trying to mitigate the damage by purchasing a force so small as to be useless for anything beyond domestic air defence, a role for which the F-35 is hardly the optimal aircraft. There is a word that a government wanting to preserve capabilities while cutting costs should be strongly urged to consider: Gripen.

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Speaking of which, an interesting piece on the possibilities of the Gripen for Canada can be found here, and a more formal one from the Ottawa Citizen here. The Gripen in its new NG version is a real balm to the ills of modern fighters. It is not only reasonably priced, but has a low cost of ownership, a complete array of integrated weapons (a big problem with other platforms including Eurofighter and F-35), high speed (unlike the Super Hornet and the F-35), great manoeuvrability (the F-35’s dogfighting ability has frequently been questioned), up-to-date electronics… It is neither a demigod of aerial combat like the Eurofighter nor a full stealth aircraft like the F-35, but neither is it far behind in those areas, and if the RCAF can buy two Gripens to an F-35 with a guarantee that maintenance costs won’t leach money from other important capital programs (of which the RCAF has several), it would be more than worth it.

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In other news, the crisis in Syria has seen a prolonged congregation of Russian, American and NATO ships in the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. A map of the ships from earlier this month.

Canada’s Support Vessels: Good sense from an unexpected quarter

In a National Post article, the Prime Minister’s former Chief of Staff, Ian Brodie, proposes a better way to build up the national economy with the troubled and long-running Joint Support Ship requirement. Rather than having a Canadian yard build these ships at unnecessary expense, the contract could be used as an incentive in free trade negotiations, for instance with South Korea. The ships would be built cheaply by experienced yards, and benefits to the Canadian economy from the trade agreement would far outweigh the jobs that would have been created by giving the work to a Canadian shipyard. One could add that the same logic would apply just as well to the Surface Combatant procurement- and instead of getting fifteen frigates with destroyer price tags, Canada could instead end up with eight to ten highly capable destroyers for a reduced price.

Logically, it makes complete sense. Politically, it doesn’t deliver the ridings and looks like an admission that the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy was flawed, and so is unlikely to happen.

In related news, from the American Enterprise Institute and Mark Collins, an analysis of NATO’s incredible shrinking navies- begging the question of why the RCN needs a force on par with Britain or France.

F-35 Still A Fiscal Curse

Two insightful pieces on the F-35 from Defence-Aerospace.com.

First, the real reason for the 22% drop in support cost estimates: they lowered the estimates– nothing else changed.

A second article, Disarmament by F-35, describes the cancerous effect of the program on acquisition budgets. The Netherlands, for example, will spend half its capital budget on 58 aircraft over six years. The strange loyalty shown to this “too-big-to-fail” program means that it starves other programs in any country that touches it. South Korea should be glad they got away…

Canada’s Maritime Helicopter Fiasco, Russia’s New Flankers and Carrier Costs

CH-148 Cyclone

CH-148 Cyclone

Canada is looking for alternatives to the Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone as a replacement maritime helicopter. The Cyclone is years late, over-budget and still lacks key capabilities. A scathing independent assessment of the program by Hitachi Consulting recommends a program restructure, but apparently even the Canadian government can see that it will not be enough.

As I have argued elsewhere, the fault of this program was in its conception. The Cyclone was to be a single-buyer, small-order heavy maritime helicopter developed from scratch in a market already replete with proven competitors. Sikorsky offered a paper helicopter to satisfy Canada’s typically unique requirements, and Canada foolishly went for it.

Meanwhile, Sikorsky has other fish to fry, with upcoming US helicopter competitions.

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In other aviation news, the Russian Navy has confirmed its intention to buy “several tens” of the Su-30SM, the domestic variant of the acclaimed Su-30MKI multi-role fighter. While this fighter is an extremely capable air-to-air combatant, it also possesses significant maritime strike capabilities. What is not clear is how it will fit into the existing force structure, since the Soviet Navy’s old long-range strike capability was passed to the Air Force with the Tu-22M Backfire bomber regiments, and the Su-30 has no carrier-based variant.

Meanwhile, Sukhoi has been showing off its three prototype T-50 aircraft at MAKS 2013:

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The US Navy’s new Gerald R. Ford class carrier is considerably more expensive than the Nimitz class which preceded it, and the cost of the order has risen by $2.3 billion since the original order. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been looking into the program, and highlights the still-immature state of many of the key technologies of the design among other factors.

The British House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has even harsher criticisms for the contract under which the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers are being built, saying that it is “not fit for purpose” and “fails to provide industry any real incentive to control costs.” The Queen Elizabeth will be the world’s largest Short Takeoff Vertical Landing carriers when launched next year.

Fly-By-Night Contractors, the Bo Trial and Iran’s New Kit

Canada paid $1 million to a German contractor to produce noise-monitoring equipment for the Victoria-class submarines several years ago. Not only was the product not delivered, it seems that the company is no longer registered in Germany, although CBC News has found a trace of them in Turkey. While Canada’s defence acquisition programs could fill textbooks with examples of what not to do, one usually expects that contractors for such major pieces of equipment would be internationally known.

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Meanwhile, the Chinese press has been riveted by an innovation– a relatively open trial of a senior Party official. Son of Bo Yibo, a powerful Party elder, Bo Xilai rose to the position of Secretary of the Communist Party in Chongqing, simultaneously holding a Politburo seat, until his wife Gu Kailai was implicated in the death of a British citizen and the Chongqing police chief claimed that Bo was involved in widespread corruption and abuse of power.

Bo’s ongoing trial has captivated Chinese media. Never before has the evidence against a senior official been laid out so publicly. Usually, such trials are conducted behind closed doors, as the trial of Gu Kailai was, and very little of the legal process happens in the courtroom in any case. Why the exception?

Bo became a powerful figurehead for the Party’s populist wing, surrounding himself with the trappings of Maoist “red culture.” The populists believe that the Party has deviated from its principles by failing to use its newfound wealth to balance the economic inequalities and address the problems of development that still claim far too many casualties in China. While Bo himself was rather circumspect on most of these issues, the Party might well think it wise to let this sordid courtroom drama play out in the public eye to disabuse the populists of their fallen hero, rather than risk turning Bo into a martyr. There was believed to be substantial apprehension among the wealthy Party elite when it looked as though Bo Xilai might rise to the Politburo Standing Committee during the transition of power last year. There is, after all, no rhetoric that can be more powerfully used against a Communist Party than Communist rhetoric. Given China’s slowness to balance the inequalities of development, the populists do indeed have a popular case.

So the Bo trial is not the beginning of a new age of transparency, nor is it any less unthinkable that Bo would be found innocent than any other official the Party puts on trial. It is simply that the Party has judged it safer to air some of its dirty laundry in this case than risk the entire case being seen as an attempt to crush a popular leader.

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Iran has announced that it will soon unveil a number of domestically-produced weapons systems, notably including a new submarine. Given the record of Iran’s past domestic defence products- midget and subscale submarines, “destroyers” that anywhere else would struggle to qualify as frigates and alleged stealth aircraft built on the scale of jet trainers, it probably won’t be anything to get excited about. The Gulf States, of course, will be watching closely, as will the United States and Israel.

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An article at Foreign Policy.com highlights (or repeats) an interesting truth of the digital age: that many pieces of information that were once products of professional intelligence gathering can increasingly be found through open sources. Daniel Prieto asks what we can do to leverage the march of OSINT more effectively.

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On Thursday, Japan intercepted some Russian Tu-95 “Bear” bombers intruding in its airspace. Although some might think such intrusions the main purpose of the Bear fleet (in its career since 1956, the turboprop-powered bomber has probably become the most intercepted aircraft of all time), it is an unusual blip in an otherwise cordial Russo-Japanese relationship.