Fighter choice: military or political decision?
TO DATE, most of the controversy over the proposed purchase of 65 Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighters, alias F-35 Lightning II aircraft, has concerned its cost. But a more important issue is surely whether the expensive stealth plane is really what’s needed to replace Canada’s current fighter jet, the Boeing CF-18 Hornet.
Rightly or wrongly, we have seen the F-35 as essentially a manned version of the drones now being used with such controversial effectiveness in the Far East.
Both aircraft are primarily designed for first-strike purposes, something the United States military has been using for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but something that doesn’t fit Canada’s historic role as a peace-keeper.
It strikes us that the Canadian public has never been given a credible explanation for a decision by the federal government 10 years ago to invest $160 million (US) in an effort, led by the U.S. and Britain, to see the F-35 developed to serve as NATO's air backbone for decades to come.
Was it just a matter of joining the club?
That decision, made by the Liberal government of former prime minister Jean Chrétien, led to decisions by subsequent governments not to seek competitive bids for replacement of the aging fleet of CF18’s delivered by Boeing in the 1980s, nearly half of which are no longer in active service.
Thankfully, the Harper government is apparently about to go shopping for alternatives to the F-35 and has engaged four independent monitors, among them University of Ottawa professor Philippe Lagassé, an outspoken critic of the jet procurement.
The Conservatives, who have been heavily criticized for selecting the F-35 without due regard for price and availability, are also trying to repair their credibility as stewards of public money by releasing new estimates that may indicate the full lifetime costs of the F-35 purchases have surpassed all previous forecasts and now exceed $40 billion.
As part of restarting the military procurement process from scratch, government officials will collect information from other plane manufacturers, including Boeing, maker of the Super-Hornet, and a consortium behind the Eurofighter Typhoon.
They may also contact Sweden’s Saab, manufacturer of the Gripen, and France’s Dassault, maker of the Rafale.
This week, the government will start this process by releasing National Defence’s updated cost estimates for buying the F-35 fighters, and an independent review by KPMG of the forecast price for keeping the jets flying for their projected 36-year lifespan.
But what we have not yet heard with any precision is just what role any new jet fighters are to fill.
If it’s still true that the role will include search-and-rescue work, it would seem obvious that cold-weather performance and flight ranges are far more important than stealth capability or the latest in flight technology.
In the circumstances, a wise move by the government would be to have a select committee hold hearings on this basic issue of mandate.
Since it’s their tax money that will finance the purchases, Canadians ought to be told far more than just what the different jets would cost. And with the government now doubting that its budgetary deficits will be slain during its current term in office, cost will be a particularly important consideration.
As matters stand, the proposed purchase of 65 F-35 jets strikes us as akin to a family of four that’s already in debt looking seriously at buying a Porsche instead of a minivan at a fraction of the price.