You know, the F-35 fighter probably seemed like a good idea at the time, for Canada.
The current Canadian Conservative federal government is wrestling with the challenge of replacing the Canadian CF-18 fighter.
It’s a twin engine plane, something considered important for survival as it patrols the vast emptiness of the Canadian north and the country’s three coastlines.
The Conservatives all but declared the F-35 the replacement aircraft until it got out that the true cost of the aircraft would be almost double what the government was saying it would be.
It’s also a single engine fighter, something that can be a problem when one engine goes on the fritz. If you have two engines, you get home. If you have one not-working-engine you get to watch your plane crash in flames while you drift down into the arctic wasteland or the frigid north Atlantic or Pacific under the canopy of your parachute. If you’re lucky.
Now, um, the whole thing is, up in the air? Sorry.
The opposition to the decision is expected to gain strength next month.
Between now and Christmas, KPMG is expected to table it’s review of the cost of the fighter to Parliament. It’s expected the Conservative government will be accused of mismanagement by opposition parties.
It should shoot the fighter deal down.
Well, we’ve made bad decisions before. In fact, the Progressive Conservatives were looking around for an air defence weapon at the end of the cold war.
That’s right, although not always thought of as a major player on the world scene, Canada was just as worried as other countries during the Cold War, so officials began casting about for a system to protect our troops from enemy aircraft. By the time Canada actually pulled the trigger on the decision and the system was delivered, well, it was 1989; the last of it wasn’t delivered until the early nineties. The Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was no longer a monolith.
Still, the world is a dangerous place. And our troops should be protected. So just what did we get to do the job?
Well, the Progressive Conservative government in power at the time did what governments generally do – ignore the real needs of the Canadian Armed Forces for something that will cost lots of money and never be used.
So it considered a system designed by the Swiss company Oerlikon-Buehrle. Now its name – the Air Defence Anti-Tank System, or ADATS – is a bit misleading, suggesting as it does that the system defends against tanks in the air (which are well known to be more heavy and brick-like than aerodynamic), but actually the system is made to shoot down both low-flying aircraft and tanks.
The more analytical among us might wonder what those two things have in common that makes a consolidated defence system a good idea. And the more economical among us might question the practicality of missiles that cost $300,000 each. At that price you might want to try just waving a cheque for $250,000 in front of the tank crew and offering to buy the tank from them, pocketing a handsome $50,000 for yourself.
The ADATS has some good points. For example, the ADATS missiles move really fast. They approach Mach 3. That’s three times the speed of sound. That’s faster than most jets. So they can catch up to a jet without problem. And if they hit one, there won’t be much left of the jet.
Of course, if the jets are flying low, which low-flying aircraft generally are, there are frequently trees and buildings and hills and such obstructing the line of sight, so often there just isn’t enough time to lock onto them and then “service” them (as military personnel euphemistically term it) with a missile.
The missiles can certainly catch a tank. Tanks move at about sixty kilometres per hour, maximum, on a smooth road, leaving plenty of time for the missiles to lock onto them.
Of course, today’s tanks are very heavily armoured. Chobham armour, which is a British invention, is made of layers of steel and ceramic. Even old Soviet-era T-72 tanks — which don’t have Chobham armour, just feet and feet of steel plate — are tough. So while the tanks can be caught, they can also easily withstand a shot from a kinetic energy weapon like the ADATS — at least from the front.
The armour at the back end of a tank is much thinner, so if the ADATS could hit it from behind, it would be game over for the tank. Of course, to do that, the ADATS would probably have to go behind enemy lines. And the ADATS is not heavily armoured. If it were hit from the right angle, an assault rifle or a rocket-propelled grenade could shoot it up.
The ADATS also has an anti–air radar dish, which makes it tall. And therefore difficult to hide behind enemy lines.
In fact, the ADATS is so tall, the military had to create a “clenching kit” to make the ADATS shorter for shipping. The kit bolts onto the bottom of the chassis and clenches the torsion bars to make it lower.
Unfortunately, because the ADATS is so heavy, the corroded loading ramps on the Hercules cargo aircraft that carry the ADATS overseas have to be buffed up to take the weight, which means the ADATS, even clenched, is too tall to fit on.
And given that our troops need protection overseas, there’s not much point in keeping the ADATS in Canada. Its range is ten kilometres. At that rate, we can’t even shoot past our territorial waters.
So, thanks to the Cold War – and typical government decision-making – what we ended up with is a system that can destroy a jet but has challenges locking on to it, that can catch a tank but has challenges destroying it, and that isn’t really needed at home (which is all to the good, of course) but is too tall to be shipped overseas where it’s needed most.
Eventually, the military realized that the missiles are too expensive and they’re not all that effective at disabling a tank, so they ordered ADATS to be used only in an anti-aircraft role. So much for the consolidated defence system.
But it gets better.
The full ADATS system with missiles and maintenance and all that good stuff, has cost taxpayers about a billion dollars – so far.
It’s so expensive it is rarely deployed even domestically (although during the G-8 Kananaskis conference in 2002, it being less than a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Canadian military actually sent some of the precious anti-air units off to the wilds of Alberta to help protect the G-8 leaders against a terrorist attack). And it has not been used for training since the time one rolled over and severely damaged the expensive radar and missile system.
Now you have to understand, Canada ordered just over 30 ADATS. The cost per vehicle is about $30 million per vehicle. Yes, $30 million. It was hoped the cost to Canada would be defrayed by the Swiss selling the system to other countries, like the United States. But only Canada and Thailand showed interest.
Scott Taylor, perhaps Canada’s best military affairs journalist, wrote in his magazine Esprit de Corp:
“With no chance to expand their sales, Oerlikon-Buehrle cut their losses and pulled its funding out of the Canadian ADATS program. The result was that the Canadian government alone (read: DND’s budget) was left propping up the entire project. With all the start-up costs and research and development factored into the equation, the original 32 units manufactured cost taxpayers over $1 billion – a staggering $30 million per vehicle.
“During a 1992 training exercise, a transport trailer carrying an ADATS unit rolled over and crushed the vehicle’s high-tech turret. When DND accountants wrote off the loss, the brass suddenly realized that they couldn’t afford to even train with such expensive toys. At that time, all remaining ADATS vehicles were mothballed at the St-Jean-sur-Richelieu factory, with maintenance costs of approximately $40 million per year being paid to Oerlikon.”
In 2005, the Canadian government under the Liberals, initiated a $750 million modernization program for the weapon system which was cancelled in 2006 due to complications with the concept.
Now it looks like they will be stationed outside museums and similar sites across the country, more likely to be sitting places for feathered aircraft.
Well, as long as they’ve found a good home, right?
For more on the F 35 click here.
For more on ADATS click here.