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Why can’t we have some of those hip new fighter jets?

All the cool countries are doing it.


 
But all the cool countries are doing it!

Reuters/Getty Images/Lockheed Martin/Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

Are you like me? Are you woefully uninformed about this F-35 business that’s been in the news? The topic came up at a dinner party in Ottawa, and I was so ashamed by my lack of knowledge that I snuck away to hide in a washroom. In Winnipeg.

Let’s figure this thing out together.

What exactly is an F-35?

It’s a new fighter jet being manufactured by Lockheed Martin. Its full name is the Joint Strike Fighter F-35 Lightning II. We probably shouldn’t be at all concerned that this sounds like something a little boy would name his tricycle.

What’s this got to do with Canada?

All the cool countries are getting F-35s, so we’re buying some too. In fact, our Department of National Defence wanted this hip new toy so badly that it structured the procurement process to ensure no other jet could win. In 2010, the Conservative government dutifully announced plans to purchase 65 F-35 fighters, at a cost of $9 billion. On one hand, that sounds like a lot of money, but on the other hand, why do you hate our troops, first hand?

Why do we need these planes?

I’m not saying our current fleet of CF-18s is old, but mechanics are getting a little tired of opening the engine hood and listening to the prehistoric birds make wisecracks. “Squawk! It’s a living!”

I don’t get that reference.

The Flintstones. Apparently I’m even older than our CF-18s.

Doesn’t $9 billion seem like a reasonable price for basically a whole new air force?

Did the government say $9 billion? It meant $15 billion, by which it actually meant $25 billion.

Wait—why have the numbers changed?

That meddling Auditor General of ours happened to notice that National Defence low-balled the total cost of the F-35 program by the teeny-tiny amount of ten thousand million dollars.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said this was “a matter of accounting.” What he meant was that he and his cabinet colleagues were “a-counting” on Canadians not catching on to the fact they were concealing some $10,000,000,000 in costs.

That’s a lot of zeroes.

I’ll thank you not to refer to members of the federal cabinet that way.

So the actual cost of the jets is going to be almost three times the original $9-billion figure? I’m confused.

Lucky for you, Stephen Harper set aside time this week to provide clarity. “There’s more than one number, there’s more than one cost depending upon what you are counting,” the Prime Minister said. “The numbers you talk about are different numbers costing different things.” Got that? $9 billion . . . $25 billion . . . THESE ARE JUST NUMBERS THAT ARE DIFFERENT FROM OTHER DIFFERENT NUMBERS.

But why does the price of the F-35 continue to rise?

First of all, it’s not cheap to take the cockpit of a state-of-the-art fighter jet and make sure there’s enough room in there to give Peter MacKay a lift home. Second, it appears the Conservatives committed Canada to buying the F-35s before certain details were finalized—such as how much the aircraft would actually cost. Months after the announcement, bureaucrats reported they were still “advancing our understanding of the costs” of the planes. This makes sense, because in daily life we all hand over our credit cards and say to shop clerks: “I’ll be back for it Tuesday.”

These F-35s are supposed to be in service for decades. But aren’t manned aircraft going to become obsolete in the age of drones?

Yes.

Oh.

Hmm.

Is the government doing anything to address the auditor general’s criticism?

The Conservatives have set up a new secretariat to relaunch the purchase of fighters. They say it’s important that control of the process be given to new bureaucrats with new perspectives.

So we could wind up with a different jet altogether?

Sure. Except that the name of the new organization is the “F-35 Secretariat.”


 

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