While everything seems to have gone wrong with the Canadian F-35 procurement process, one test case may show us how things can go right. In September of 2012 the Indian Air Force chose the Dassault Rafale as their new multi-role fighter. Should Canada learn from the Indian experience and purchase the Dassault Rafale as well?
The concept of policy success is elusive and difficult to pinpoint, because a decision of this sort touches on different elements of the Canadian national interest. Through a focused comparison of the benefits of the procurement of each aircraft to Canada in the most important dimensions of procurement: an informed decision on which aircraft should be purchased can made. A successful procurement process must take into account the following dimensions: economic, the technological, the political, the technological and the operational.
The Economic Dimension of Procurement: The Indian example highlights the political advantages of the Rafale. If the Indian deal is to be mirrored in the Canadian case, the economic benefits would be great. Dassault has promised full transfer of technology and licensing for the production of 108 of the 126 fighters to be purchased by the Indian Air Force. While Canada was to benefit economically from the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) project as well, the full manufacture of the aircraft was never promised.
In all fairness, Canadian companies would profit from the F-35. Lockheed Martin recently stated that Canadian companies stand to lose a possible $10.5 billion in contracts if Canada chooses not to purchase the aircraft. Orlando Carvalho, the executive vice-president of aeronautics at Lockheed stated that the current $488 million in contracts that have already been awarded to Canadian companies in relation to the F-35 would not be affected. At the same time, the Indian deal, which was for 126 fighters, would net Indian contractors some $20 billion in revenue. While a Canadian order would not be as large, it highlights the potential of economic spin-offs for the Rafale.
This leads to a problem in arguing for the economic benefits of the Rafale; there are no guarantees production-wise and just because the Indians were allowed manufacturing deals does not mean Canada will receive the same benefits. At the same time, the reported sum of $10.5 billion would be the amount spread out over 25 to 40 years. These figures were disseminated by a Lockheed Martin official in an attempt to purchase the F-35. This means that the potential $10.5 billion sum touted by Carvalho would only be received by Canadian companies if they won all available contracts pertaining to the F-35. This is both economically and politically impossible, as the American government would undoubtedly seek to spread out economic benefits amongst all nine current partners in the JSF program.
Despite the problems, the Rafale would be the more economical fighter. At a fly away price tag of around US $82.3 million, the Rafale is cheaper than the F-35 at approximately US $153.1 million, with the constant threat of ever rising costs. In fact just this week Senator John McCain, which whatever you may think of him, is still an ex-Air Force pilot with extensive experience in military matters, called the JSF program “one of the great national scandals” as the program became the country’s first trillion-dollar acquisition program. Recently, a former U.S. Army Brigadier General has written that the JSF has become a monster, simply “too big to fail.”
The Technological Dimension of Procurement: Both fighters have their share of technical problems. The F-35 has had engine problems as of late, while issues have been raised as to whether the Rafales engines can operate in extreme cold, a major problem for an air superiority fighter meant to patrol the Arctic. At the same time, both have their unique qualities that give them certain edges in combat. The F-35 has an extremely low radar profile, the main stealth capabilities being negated when external weapons are loaded, and the SPECTRA electronic warfare package of the Rafale is touted as one of the best defence systems available in an active fighter craft.
The Operational Dimension of Procurement: In order to weigh which problems would least effect each fighters ability to perform the job that Canada needs it to do, one must look at what jobs Canada’s Air Force has done in the past. Missions in Libya saw Canadian CF-18s bombing targets on the ground, similar to what was done in the 1990s in the Balkans. Here the Rafales SPECTRA system has been proven by French missions in Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali to successfully protect the aircraft from ground based threats.
It is unlikely that Canada will be providing the first wave of strikes in order to achieve air superiority in the foreseeable future, so a stealth, or stealthier, fighter is not of prime concern. Of much greater importance is the ability to carry a large payload, which when equipped with external weapon pylons the F-35 loses much of its advantage in the stealth department. In contrast the Rafale the largest weapons payload as compared to its main competitors that are currently operational (the Eurofighter and the Saab Gripen) in addition to the F-35.
For foreign strike missions, the Rafale has proven itself to be a reliable, safe, and deadly workhorse. For domestic security the Rafale seems also to be superior to the F-35. For starters, the Rafale is a twin engine fighter. Any pilot will tell you that the safety of a second engine is a strong provider of peace of mind. Couple with the current Canadian strategic obsession with maintaining a presence in the Arctic, this means we can expect long air patrols over thousands of kilometers of frozen tundra. In these cases, that second engine may become the difference between life and death. Besides the twin engines, the Rafale has an operating range of approximately 2,000 nautical miles, much more than the F-35’s 1,200 nautical miles.14 When patrolling and operating in the Arctic, range is key.
The Political Dimension of Procurement: Politically, selling the F-35 is getting harder and harder. Here at home a lot of the political problems could have been solved with more transparency and an open tender for the fighter contract. This is now in the cards, but the cost increases have made the JSF program a juicy political target nonetheless. In the Netherlands a coalition government is experiencing some significant infighting over the issue, and even in the US, land of bloated defence spending, the F-35 is becoming a hot-button issue due to its cost overruns.
I’m not saying the Rafale is perfect, and there are other proven aircraft out there that could replace the aging CF-18 fleet, the most obvious being the upgraded Super Hornet. What I am saying is in the most important dimensions of procurement, the Rafale has proven itself. It has survived both tendering processes and combat, and in the world of military procurement sometimes the former is the harder battle to win.
Mathew Preston – MA Student