Industry officials made a public pitch Friday to drum up support for the controversial F-35 fighter jet program, highlighting the technical progress made in recent months and the benefits Canadian firms stand to receive if their government moves forward with the purchase.
After a year of bad press following the federal government’s botched estimate of how much it would cost to procure 65 of the stealth planes, officials from Lockheed Martin Corp. and Pratt & Whitney hosted a telephone press conference to refute perceptions of cost overruns and noting the involvement of several Canadian firms – including Ottawa-based GasTops – on the project.
Steve O’Bryan, vice-president of F-35 programs at Lockheed Martin, said the jets have undergone a 50 per cent price reduction compared to five years ago, and estimated that each plane will cost $67 million by 2020.
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Cost reductions have come from an assembly line built to more efficiently put the airplane together, and streamlining the supply chain to produce economies of scale.
Currently, Lockheed Martin – the maker of the stealth jet – and Pratt & Whitney – which builds the plane’s engine – have agreements to produce 3,1000 planes. That has resulted in 72 Canadian companies receiving approximately $438 million in contracts to date.
“This isn’t just about bending aluminum,” Mr. O’Bryan said. “This is about advancing the Canadian aerospace industry to make it competitive for years and years to come.”
Opportunities for Canadian aerospace companies helping to build the F-35s exceed $12 billion by his estimate, which doesn’t include sustainment costs to keep the planes running for a life cycle of 42 years.
Eight countries excluding Canada have made purchase agreements to procure F-35s, which Mr. O’Bryan said he believes will become “the backbone of the allied coalition fighter force, and it will be for many, many years to come.”
That’s why the Canadian government should make sure they’re not late to the party, he added.
“You don’t want to be the last one to buy a particular make and model of an airplane,” he said. “You want to be in the future … The question is, does (the Canadian government) want to have the leading edge technology with their other allied partners?”
Other industry benefits Mr. O’Bryan highlighted include waiving the U.S. government administration fee for Canadian companies providing equipment down south, plus a cash payment for every F-35 sold internationally.
Billie Flynn, an F-35 test pilot and former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, provided a technical briefing on the vessel, including its ability to carry 18,500 pounds of fuel – double the amount most aircrafts can currently handle – and 52,000s pound of cargo while still maintaining stealth.
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Mr. O’Bryan said that Canada is not one of the countries under contract for F-35 jets.
Lockheed Martin recently received a questionnaire from the Canadian government asking detailed questions about the planes, and the company submitted its reply yesterday, Mr. O’Bryan said.
He added that he expects a second questionnaire to follow before hearing a decision from the federal government, but doesn’t know when an outcome will be announced.
“From our perspective, this is a very important decision that a country makes,” he said.
The government put its plans to purchase 65 F-35s on hold after a report from KPMG pegged the total cost of the purchase at $45.8 billion over the 42-year life span – more than four times higher than the initial estimate of $9 billion that the Department of National Defence put aside for the project to replace aging CF-18s.
The $45.8 billion figure from KPMG’s independent audit includes attrition costs, fuel and maintenance on top of the plane procurement.
Several Ottawa companies are already involved in the project.
In May 2009, GasTops won a US$48-million contract through Pratt & Whitney to supply sensors for the F135 engine that will be aboard the F-35 Lightning II.
In April 2010, Mxi Technologies announced an extension of an agreement with Lockheed Martin to include its autonomic logistics information system in the F-35.