A Broken Clock: The reasons why Canadian Politicians have not gotten the F35 decision right.

“Canada says no guarantee it will buy F-35 fighters

OTTAWA – There is no guarantee that Canada will buy any F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) despite helping to fund development of the new generation U.S. warplane, a senior military official said on Wednesday.  …

Earlier this week Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada would buy 65 modern fighters. When asked what kind of fighters, a Harper spokeswoman referred to the JSF program.

But the military official said that although the JSF was “a very good aircraft”, Canada would be keeping its options open.”

  •  Reuters, May 14, 2010, Wed May 14, 2008 1:44pm EDT (online)

So let us be straight, Canada does not have a strategy to replace our current mainline jet fighter, theMcDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornet. Since entering service in 1982, Canada has ordered 98 single-seat CF-18As and 40 two-seat CF-18Bs. However, they are coming close to the end of their useful life and might need to be replaced. Given that we have the third largest Air Force in the Americas – behind the US and the Brazilian Air Forces being one and two – one would think that we would plan for such an eventuality. However, we have not.

This is one reason why the Joint Strike Fighter, F-35, has been a political issue from the start. Unlike, another jet, AVRO Arrow, the Canadian Military did not have a set of needs. From what we can gather, all that our military required were aircraft that would be competitive with other jets in the sky and interoperability with our NATO allies. This lack of direction meant that an open bidding process would have no direction. It also meant that government priorities, and not security or policy concerns, would win the day. So under Chretien, Martin or Harper, this project has been political from the start.

The Chretien Government signed onto to assist in its development for two reasons: Iraq and Business Opportunities. Or put differently, since the Chretien government decided to not go into Iraq or agree with the Missile Defense Shield, it gave the Bush Government a small win: agreeing to work with others to develop a Joint Strike Fighter. Furthermore, the Canadian Aerospace Industry wanted to bid on the project. The only way that could happen was for the Canadian Government to participate in the project.

The Government of Stephen Harper has been equally political in its stance on this interceptor. One can see and understand this if one takes the time to look at the facts. This government has argued that these jets are necessary. However, it has yet to say why. In fact, the day after a violation of the Canadian 300km Security Parameter by Russian TU-95 long range bombers, the Globe and Mail quoted Conservative Party talking points. They said the following:

“This incident demonstrates why it is vitally important for the Canadian Armed Forces to have the best technology and equipment available. This is true whether we are asserting our Arctic sovereignty, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan or aiding reconstruction efforts in Haiti,” the Conservative Party said in talking points on the incident released Friday. (Russian jet confrontation a ‘close one,’ Defence official says, Globe and Mail.com, by Daniel Leblanc, Friday, July 30, 2010)

So let us see the accuracy of this claim. TU-95 long range bombers were first developed in the 1950’s and entered service into the Soviet Air Force in 1956. They have continued their service unabated. Now I am not a military expert, but I know that the Russian TU-95 long range bombers have been surpassed by two generations of fighters and bombers. For example, the General Dynamics F-111 came into service in July 18, 1967. It served in Vietnam and other places South East Asia and the F-111 was a part of both the RAAF and the USAF up until the 1990’s. At that time, both services started to retire the planes. In the USAF, its medium-range precision strike duties were taken over by the F-15E Strike Eagle. While, the supersonic bomber role has been assumed by the B-1B Lancer.

Or one can look at the F-117. It came into service on June 18th, 1981. It became the first operational aircraft initially designed around stealth technology. The F-117A participated in the Persian Gulf War of 1991. It was commonly called the “Stealth Fighter” although it was a ground-attack aircraft, making its F-designation misleading. However, it was retired in 2008. The F-117 roles were takeover by the F-22 Raptor. The American Government intends to phase out the Raptor, once the F-35 Lightning II is introduced. So arguing, as the Harper Government did, that the TU-95 – Korean War era bombers – were a threat to modern jet fighters was ridiculous.

What makes the Harper Government’s claims more ridiculous was that the more modern Soviet Era Tupolev Tu-160, which could have been a threat, was not used for this incursion. The Tu-160’s were never put into full production because of the fall of the Soviet Union. Or put differently, Canadians has yet to see a threat that requires the F35’s capabilities. So it is easy to say that the F-35 is the most political airplane deal since the AVRO Arrow.

If one were to take the present Defence Minister, Peter MacKay, seriously; one would say that there are two reasons for updating our mainline jet fighter. Firstly, we need to keep up with our major NATO allies and have an interoperable aircraft. Secondly, the Defence Minister would have us believe that the F-35 is the only choice for us. However, a look at other European Air Forces development projects on can see the holes in the Hon. Peter MacKay’s arguments. For, there are several 4.5 or 5th generation fighters that already exist that could take on the F-35’s roles. They include the Super Hornet, Northrop/McDonnell Douglas YF-23, Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor, European Typhoon, Saab JAS 39 Gripen and the Dassault Rafale. What makes things more interesting is the fact that the European Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale will be the mainline fighters of some of our NATO allies. So unlike the Government of Louis St. Laurent, this Conservative government has options. Or put differently, because of the needs provided by the Canadian Armed Forces in the late 50’s, the Louis St. Laurent’s Government felt that it had to create the AVRO Arrow. There was nothing like it in the skies. However, the Harper Government has a number of ready-made options available to it. Yet, they still want to embark on the development of a new plane. If it had asked the military for specifications, these specifications could have gone before Parliament or to an open bidding process. Or put differently, the rush to the F35 has nonsensical.

This truth is even more obvious when one looks at our rivals. For example, India and Russia are working to together to develop the Sukhoi T-50. They hope to be in production by 2016 or 2020. With this being said, this Indian-Russian joint programme has suffered similar problems to the F-35 project. Furthermore, when completed the T-50 will not likely be as stealthy as the F-35. For, the Russian government has made it clear that it was willing to concede “invisibility” for manoeuvrability.

The truth is that the Government has not been fully honest about its options. This is why the Conservative government has to wrap itself in the flag. If you don’t believe me just look at what Peter McKay’s Press Secretary Jay Paxton said. According to the ELP Defens(c)e Blog, the blog for DOD Watch, Eric Palmer quoted Jay Paxton as saying: “it doesn’t surprise me that Michael Ignatieff and his team are once again willing to sacrifice the protection of our men and women in uniform and jeopardize Canadian sovereignty”.

Yet, other countries have taken a different point of view. The Brazilian Air Force has declined to by pass the F-35’s and will instead by F-16’s again. The Australians have purchased the F/A-18E/F’s and has no plans to order the upgraded cockpit, having already received the first five of its 24 two-seat aircraft. Meanwhile, Boeing is also offering the Super Hornet to Denmark, India, Japan and Kuwait. (Flight International. Boeing to offer F-35-like cockpit display for Super Hornet, By Stephen Trimble, 07/06/10). Other critics have even said that updated versions of existing fourth generation fighters (i.e. CF-18) might be a viable option for some air forces.

Truth of the matter is simple: the Conservatives had many options. They just choose one that was matched their political goals and not the military’s needs. Instead of going before Parliament and having a decision about the military’s goals are, the Present Government seeks to do an end run around Parliament. Have they forgotten that Parliament in our system, is supposed to determine the purpose, goals and needs of the military? Have they forgotten the right of Parliament to approve and provide oversight to the Crown? I hope not.

With this being said, the Liberals should not be blindly critical of the decision. For example, according to ELP Defens(c)e Blog, Marc Garneau said the following: “A $16 billion sole-sourced contract agreed to without transparency can’t be allowed to proceed,” said Liberal MP and industry critic Marc Garneau. “If the Conservatives won’t put a stop to this contract, a future Liberal government will.”

While when Ujjal Dosanjh was in the house, he formally asked the “Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page to compare the costs and benefits of different countries that have bought the fighters “where one country engaged in a competitive bidding process and the other country opted to make the purchase through a sole-sourced contract.” (Liberals want Kevin Page to go all Maverick on the F-35 fighter contract, Andrew Davidson, cbc.ca). This issue should not be decided on cost alone for we do not want Canadian Pilots in substandard planes.

The truth is that the replacement of our main jet fighter is going to cost billions of dollars. The Liberal Opposition should, therefore, be honest with Canadians. For example, if we were to upgrade our fleet of fighters – with existing 4th generation technology – Mr. MacKay has indicated that the cost could be a minimum of $2.4 billion dollars by 2020. That’s right simply fixing up or buying replacement CF-18s is an expensive option as well.

Furthermore, there is a risk. While, a new set of fighters that uses 4th Generation technology might be cheaper, it might be sidelined due to technological or strategic changes. Furthermore, while, a new fleet of 65 fighters of F-35s would cost a minimum of $16 billion dollars; it could last for another 40 to 60 years. These trade-offs are essentially political and not economic. Consequently, our Party should not be treating this as an accounting or economic issue. We should study what the Canadian Military needs. Ask our procurement office, our military, our diplomats and other professionals about the future costs and benefits of such a project and then make the right decision.

Either way, the essential problem comes down to this: no one is looking at our needs. The Liberal Party should be the first to recognize this problem. We should be asking the “Other” – NGO’s, academics, military personnel and diplomats, just to name a couple of interested parties – for a broad outline of what our military goals can or should be. From there, we can have a conversation. It can be held in Parliament, in the halls of power and in our society. This is the only way that we can balance of all the needs and what our military should look like in the future.

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