Politicking on F-35 remains unchanged

John Siebert Conventional Weapons, Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

Published in the Waterloo Region Record

As the forensic investigations proceed in the wake of Auditor General Michael Ferguson’s devastating critique last week of the F-35 procurement process, those with the ability to get behind the public facade of federal decision-making should look squarely at the period from May 12 to June 19, 2008.

What happened then is happening again, and it promises to keep Canada locked in the purchase process of one option no matter what its publicly chronicled problems.

From the evidence on the public record, it is in the spring of 2008 that the decision of the Department of National Defence, already made in 2006, to focus solely on the purchase of F-35 fighter jets was translated into a political commitment by the prime minister and the Minister of National Defence. How do we know? The stuttering release of the Canada First Defence Strategy on those two dates spells it out.

On May 12, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay verbally announced the government’s military strategy to equip the Canadian Forces to 2028.

The accompanying media releases from the Prime Minister’s Office stated: “The government’s comprehensive plan (is) to ensure Canadian Forces have the people, equipment and support they need to meet the nation’s long-term domestic and international security challenges.” The Canada First Defence Strategy included “proceeding with the major combat fleet replacements of surface combat ships, maritime patrol craft, fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft, fighter aircraft and land combat vehicles and systems.”

There was no indication in that announcement that replacing the generic category of “fighter aircraft” was or would become a priority among these military platform replacements. It was not until June 19, 2008, when the actual 21-page policy document for the Canada First Defence Strategy was released, that the qualifier “next-generation” was attached to “fighter aircraft.” The number of units needed, 65, also appears there for the first time.

This link was confirmed in September 2010 in testimony before the House of Commons standing committee on national defence. Mackay told the committee: “As a fifth-generation aircraft, it is the only plane that can fill the requirement laid out in the Canada First Defence Strategy …. It’s a capability that we need for our sovereignty, for patrolling our airspace and for ensuring that we can shoulder our share of the NATO and international load, and lead by example.”

The next, or fifth, generation capability referred to is the stealth-enabled technical advantage advertised for the Joint Strike Fighter. Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose stated before the Commons committee: “The Canada First Defence Strategy two years ago committed us to purchasing a next-generation fighter. So the Defence Department and Public Works research has confirmed that there is only one next-generation fighter available for purchase by Canada.”

With the words “next-generation” the political die was cast. Then, as now, there was only one “next-generation” jet fighter available to the Canadian Forces: the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35. The superior and far more expensive F-22 Raptor, already in limited service with the U.S. air force, is a “fifth-generation” jet fighter but is not being sold internationally. There are Chinese, Russian and Indian “fifth-generation” jet fighters reportedly in development, but these are not viable options for purchase by Canada.

What explains the particular insertion of “next-generation” or “fifth-generation” into Canada First between May and June 2008? We can speculate.

Canadian generals may finally have persuaded their political masters about the rightness of the F-35 for Canada’s future. The Canadian Aerospace Industry Association working with primary contractor Lockheed Martin could have approached the prime minister or his office to fix attention on the industrial benefits for Canada. We know from WikiLeaks cables that a concerted campaign by U.S. officials was directed at Norway in 2008 to confirm purchase the Joint Strike Fighter. Why not include pressure on Canada in the campaign?

Perhaps the calculus of the decision is forever lost in the mists of the internal workings of the Prime Minister’s Office in the spring of 2008, but it was then that the Harper government’s military procurement plans shifted from replacing “fighter jets” to purchasing a “next generation” or “fifth generation” jet. From this political decision the rest flows. Public Works confirmed that there was only one available “next-generation fighter.” The Department of National Defence produced the requirements that confirmed that the F-35 met the requirements for a “next-generation fighter.” The choice was announced on July 16, 2010.

Why does it matter? If we can determine what drove the decision in the spring of 2008, we will better understand what is happening now. Stating that a “next generation” fighter jet is needed narrowed options to one. Replacing “fighter jets” opens the field to alternatives to the F-35.

The title of chapter 2 of the auditor general’s report is Replacing Canada’s Fighter Jets; but the April 3, 2012 seven-step published response of the government speaks only about the F-35: freezing the F-35 funding envelope, establishing the F-35 Secretariat of Deputy Ministers, a review of F-35 sustainment costs, identifying opportunities for Canadian industry to participate in the F-35 global supply chain, and so on.

The government’s current response continues to leave only one option. And with only one option, all the fundamental troubles with the procurement of Canada’s next fighter jets will inevitably remain.

© Copyright 2012 Metroland Media Group Ltd.

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