One of the primary reasons national elections were called last year, Canadian politicians debated the F-35 cost issue extensively, with the governing Conservative Party and the DND attacking aggressively, saying the PBO "got it wrong" and "significantly inflated" costs.
But even the election, which the conservatives won, did not end the debate. In 2012, Canada's Auditor General (analogous to our Government Accountability Office) took another look at F-35 costs to Canada. Its report confirmed that DND had badly understated costs and, in fact, had deliberately withheld more than $10 billion from the estimate it gave Parliament.
The reaction in Canada was most un-American. The DND officials associated with the now-discredited cost figure were publically disowned, even by the government, which took responsibility for the F-35 purchase from that department and gave it to the Minister for Public Works. The government also supported, albeit very reluctantly, a new independent study on the F-35's cost. In short, two competent and independent investigations had re-set the debate and effectively dishonored senior defense officials. Those officials have not yet been forced to actually resign, but they are given little public credibility on the matter and a "motion of contempt" has been left pending in Parliament against at least one of them.
In the United States, we don't punish officials for offering misleading statements; we promote them. In 2008, the Air Force's manager for the F-35 program, Major General Charles R. Davis, asserted that the "flyaway" cost of its F-35As would be between $60 and $70 million by the time the purchase reached its fourth production lot and that it might even be less than that. Contemporary with Davis' forecast, GAO had been writing reports warning Congress about optimistic estimates of F-35 cost and schedule. The GAO reports were roundly ignored by Congress and the Pentagon, as were other insiders and experts who spoke out publicly.
In 2012, real-time Department of Defense data for that fourth production batch shows a flyaway cost about double Davis' prediction. For being wrong by a factor of at least two, Davis was given a promotion to lieutenant general and a new job: to oversee the entire Air Force acquisition budget -- more than $40 billion annually.
Similarly, from 2009 to 2011 Ashton Carter served as the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, overseeing all Pentagon weapons purchases. He took special interest in the F-35 program and frequently reported to Congress. When he came to office, Carter was confronted with an analysis from a Joint Estimating Team (JET) predicting $11.6 billion in cost growth just over the next five years, and a year later a "JET II" analysis predicted even more cost growth and delays over the long term. Carter postured, saying he favored the JET reports, but he implemented only some of their recommendations -- ignoring especially the long-term implications for cost growth. A subsequent GAO report made all that clear, and still -- two years later -- some, but not all, additional F-35 cost growth has been acknowledged by the Pentagon.
Despite Carter's half measures and disingenuous embrace of the JET recommendations, senators praised him and unanimously confirmed his promotion to be deputy secretary of defense in 2011. Today, he is a prime candidate to replace Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta if President Obama wins re-election.
Because of their emphasis on oversight and accountability, there is a decent chance the Canadians will resolve their F-35 costs and ethics controversy. In the United States, though, even in a time of fiscal crisis and budget cuts, questionable programs and discredited officials blithely move on -- the former with more money, the latter with more authority and status. If the Canadian opposition can both understand and confront the issues surrounding the F-35, why can't we? We could but it will require a new set of actors in the currently mismanaged Pentagon and the self-obsessed Congress. It would be nice if we could expect something different.