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Pining for Spitfires

Canada's Edmonton Journal ran an editorial Friday that lamented the time, expense and complexity involved with the development of the F-35. Stepping back from the political hurly burly, the paper asked: What if we actually have to fight a war with this thing?

Would the two sides agree on a time out for a couple of decades while an extra handful of the latest design were produced? And having built them at $100 million each, would the antagonists really be willing to risk them in combat, or would the aircraft end up like the opposing fleets of dreadnought battleships in the First World War, for the most part kept nervously in harbour?
It'd be so much simpler, the paper continued, to go back to the good old days, when the Royal Air Force could just issue a requirement for a new fighter capable of hitting at least 251 mph and, ta da! Out pops the legendary Spitfire.
Design began in 1931, an initial contract for 310 was issued by the British government in 1936, the first prototype flew the same years, by 1940 they were rolling off the line at one factory at a rate of almost 60 planes a week, and in 1948 - slightly more than 20,000 aircraft of various version having been produced - the Spitfire went out of production. Price varied, of course, but in 1939 one contract put the sticker at £12,600, or roughly $850,000 in today's terms.

Think about that: in 17 years the Spitfire went from birth to out of production, for a total cost in the range of $17-$20 billion. And it helped win a world war in the meantime. Compare that with the F-35. As it happens, 17 years has already passed since the first development contract was signed, the cost to the U.S. alone is already estimated at $325 billion, the current U.S, target is only a bit more than 2,400 aircraft and the project is still not service-ready.

Among various allies interested in the supersonic, high-tech stealth fighter, Canada is thinking of buying 65 of the jets, and (leave aside the controversy over rising costs,) the number cited at the original 2010 announcement was $10 billion - or about half what 20,000 Spitfires cost in comparable terms.

And hey, we get it, the Journal says -- an F-35 is a fifth-generation, low-observable, supersonic Transformer of a warplane, much more complicated than the propeller-driven Spitfire.What's more, even though Canadian officials (along with the rest of Club F-35) have been grumbling about the project's cost growth and delays, the Journal concedes Ottawa probably will remain a member: "However critics may legitimately object to rising costs, the cost to Canada in diplomatic terms alone probably make non-participation a non-starter," the newspaper said.

Maybe, but whatever happens, it's important not to get too carried away with these kinds of comparisons. The Journal's editorial neglects the reality that the Spitfire underwent a lot of changes and development throughout its service, from engine upgrades to wing and armament enhancements. It didn't just appear fully formed, ready to take on Jerry. Who knows -- when historians someday write the full account of the F-35, they could just as easily gloss over our era of muck and mire to get ahead to the good parts. Then again, a lot can still go wrong between now and Spitfire-level immortality.

What do you think?

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