By two o’clock in the afternoon big Bruce Vento, the Democratic congressman from St. Paul, Minn., has a five o’clock shadow. It adds a tough edge to his dark, brooding features. He looks and sounds worried. The cause of his concern is the F-18* fighter plane, the aircraft that Canada is buying to fulfil defence needs through the 1990s.
Ottawa has 137 of them on order from America’s giant McDonnell Douglas Corp. at an expected cost of about $4 billion, the biggest capital contract in Canadian history, and Defence Minister Gilles Lamontagne was quick to attempt to pour cold water on Vento’s initial charges. But last week the con-
gressman produced new evidence that makes it clear that design problems and spiralling costs are sure to make the F18 substantially more expensive than the expected price tag—just as European countries who bought the rival F16 in the much-ballyhooed “arms deal of the century” also have been scalped. Warns Vento: “The Canadians had better pay very close attention to production, to delivery dates and to the performance of the product they eventually get.”
Vento is calling for open congressional hearings into the aircraft, of which the U.S. Navy plans to buy 1,377. In a month-long investigation into the F-18, he says he has unearthed “startling information” which shows that
*Canada has purchased the F-18 A (Maclean’s, April 21), which denotes an F-18 aircraft with a single seat.
not only is the plane well behind production schedules, it is running $11 billion over budget and is suffering from major technical difficulties. He believes that it may never reach the performance standards that were promised when the plane was sold to Canada. “There is something drastically wrong with this plane,” he claims. “It needs a basic redesign. I am being very decent about this thing. Based on the information that I have, I could say that the whole business is no more than a boondoggle and that it ought to be killed.” Among the evidence that Vento has gathered is a 28-page report prepared by the General Accounting Office—an
investigative arm of Congress—entitled “F-18 Naval Strike Fighter: Its Effectiveness Is Uncertain.” The report, issued in February but almost entirely overlooked, even by officialdom, maintains: “The F-18 and its armament systems have problems [which] must be corrected if the aircraft is to fulfil its mission requirements effectively.” What specifically is wrong? Test pilots have discovered that the F-18’s acceleration is slower than anticipated, that its range is not as great as was expected and that there are problems in getting the nosewheel off the ground at takeoff.
The report notes: “Based on the [U.S. department of] defence threshold, the F-18 should accelerate from Mach .9 to Mach 1.6** at 35,000 feet within a specified period of time. As of Nov. 21, 1979, this requirement had not been met,” and, what’s more, “neither the navy nor contractor officials could say specifically why the aircraft did not accelerate as expected, what will be done to correct the problem or exactly when this problem will be corrected.”
The navy’s view was that the acceleration problem occurred in a speed range that would be infrequently flown. It
**Mach is defined as the ratio of the airpseed of an aircraft to the velocity of sound under given conditions.
also said the problem could be solved easily by increasing engine thrust. But, says the GAO, this would reduce engine reliability and durability; and it adds that one reason for the acceleration problem is that the F-18 now weighs nearly 2,000 pounds more than originally intended, partly because of “overly optimistic initial engineering estimates.”
There are other nagging doubts. Early last December, the report reveals, a major airframe bulkhead failed during testing. This has had to be redesigned. There have even been problems with the weapons systems involved. The Canadian F-18s will be armed in part with 20-mm guns and Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles. Says the report: “Recent evaluations have shown that, while the 20-mm gun is reliable
and maintainable, its ammunition is ineffective.”
Again: “The F-18’s ability to evade enemy fighters enhances its survivability; however this capability is negated by the navy’s plans to use the Sparrow. This missile requires the aircraft to keep its radar locked on target until after the missile hits. During this period of restricted manoeuvrability, the F-18 is, as are all other fighter aircraft, vulnerable to enemy fighters.”
As for the Sidewinder, a short-range, infra-red guided missile: “To hit a target, the missile locks on the heat being emitted by the target. Recent tests have shown that enemy aircraft can successfully elude the Sidewinder.”
The GAO report also identifies problems in the fighter’s computer, engine starter, oil temperature and air-conditioning systems. And then there is the question of cost. Originally it was said that the F-18 would cost about $7 million a “copy.” Now it’s thought they will
cost about $24 million each. While inflation is responsible for some of this, a good deal of the cost increase has been caused by the need for design and development changes.
Twelve other congressmen are now backing Vento’s call for public hearings and he has been invited to testify before the appropriations subcommittee on defence. Joseph Addabbo, the powerful chairman of that subcommittee, reflected the concern felt throughout Congress in a letter to Vento earlier this month. Said Addabbo: “The members of the Subcommittee on Defence Appropriations are well aware of the issues raised in the recent GAO report as well as other reported problems and share your concern. We are giving the F-18 program very careful scrutiny.”
Says Vento: “The further we got into
the F-18, the more contacts we developed, the worse the situation seemed to be. There are so many questions that must be answered. I don’t think there is any national security risk here. There is a great deal of red-face risk, however.
“I understand that at one point there were restrictions put on the plane so that pilots were not being allowed to fly it at top speed. It has had difficulty in climbing and there have been problems with what they call wing flutter. We want all the questions answered in open
hearings so that there can be no coverup. In private, everyone agrees with my point. But they won’t say it in public. We’ve been contacted by the White House. The Carter administration people say: ‘Yeah, you’re right, boy, there’s some real problems with the F-18. The committee members all agree. But they all do it in private. I want it out in the open.”
So what about the Canadian contract? Says Vento: “If the Canadians think there is merit to the questions that I am raising, they should insist that they are answered. Canada is a lot better off than the Congress because it has a contract. It can demand performance in accordance with that contract and if it isn’t there then surely Canada doesn’t have to buy.”
But things may not be that simple. A senior Canadian defence official who is directly involved in the F-18 buying program says: “We have been relying on the U.S. Navy for information about the progress of the F-18 and they have not informed us of any major problems. We have a fixed-price incentive type of contract, but there is obviously an escalation clause built into it.” What that means in practice is that the price can increase with certain identified inflation factors agreed between Ottawa and McDonnell Douglas. “There’s a relatively complicated formula worked out,” said the official. That involves a price in 1978 dollars with an inflation factor written in.
Moreover, there is no agreement on who pays what for research and development—if the GAO is to be believed, a major factor in higher costs. Said the Canadian official: “We are negotiating with the U.S. government right now about how much we are going to have to pay.”
The contract does list specifications and, says the official, “If the plane doesn’t reach these specifications and standards, then we will have to negotiate a price adjustment.” But for the rest—inflation and an uncertain figure for research and development—the Canadian taxpayer will, it is clear, have to bear his own substantially increased share. <£>
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.