A clearer path for fighter jets, but a grim day for Peter MacKay

John Geddes explains why rebooting the plan is not as easy as pressing a button

It was painful to listen to Defence Minister Peter MacKay this afternoon as he faced repeated questions from reporters on whether he has any regrets about his handling of the government’s program to buy F-35 fighter jets.

Today’s news, not surprisingly, is that the problem-plagued Lockheed Martin jet is only one of several whose costly tires the government will soon be kicking. And so pretty much everything MacKay has ever said about the necessity and inevitability of the F-35 procurement has proven to be dead wrong.

He might have made it easier to hear his answers without wincing had he just admitted to past mistakes. Failing that mature, obvious response, he might have clung to a fragment of dignity by resolving at least not to drag Canadian men and women in uniform into it.

But no. His couldn’t restrain himself. He couldn’t resist bringing up his concern for the troops when pointedly asked if he had any regrets about his past harsh words toward critics who raised what turned out to be entirely valid concerns about the F-35 program.

“Look I’m very proud of what the Canadian Forces do,” he answered, as if that were germane. “I work with them daily. I feel very passionately about the obligation that I hold as minister of national defence to ensure that they have the best equipment that enables them to have mission success, to do their work, work that we ask of them, where they put themselves willingly in harm’s way.”

MacKay’s passionate feeling, we’re left to suppose, must be why he announced that the Canadian government was committed to buying 65 F-35s without properly disclosing the full costs, as was later conclusively established in a damning report last spring by the federal Auditor General. And why he slapped back criticisms with overblown warnings, like the one about how failing to press ahead with the F-35 buy would expose Canada to “real danger we’ll be unable to defend and exercise our sovereignty.”

Every element of his and the government’s earlier line of argument on the F-35—that it was the only jet that could possibly do the job, that the cost had been properly assessed and explained to taxpayers, that there was no chance an open bidding process might get Canada an adequate fighter for a better price—has been thoroughly junked.

As of today’s release of a stack of new documents, accompanied by a background briefing for reporters and a news conference featuring MacKay and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose (now the lead minister of the file), the jet fighter picture is considerably clearer and more credible.

Based on a new formula set by the consulting firm KPMG, the full cost if Canada went ahead with buying 65 F-35s, spread over 12 years of development and 30 years of flying, is estimated at $45.8 billion. To check out the other jets available on the international market—and belatedly determine what they might cost and how they might match up with Canada’s needs—the government has appointed a panel of four independent experts.

“We have hit the reset button,” Ambrose said in what was clearly meant to be the day’s takeaway phrase, “and are taking the time to do a complete assessment of all available aircraft.”

That sounded refreshingly brisk and practical. It was certainly a good deal easier to listen to than MacKay’s self-serving digression on his devotion to the troops. But of course it’s not as easy as pressing a button.

For starters, Canada is a paid-up member of a nine-country consortium—led by the U.S. and also including Britain, Italy, Holland, Turkey, Australia, Norway and Denmark—to bring the F-35 into production. All signed up planning to buy the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. Another report released today said 72 Canadian companies have secured contracts worth nearly $500 million under that arrangement, and that about $9 billion more in “opportunities” have been identified by Industry Canada.

This week in the House, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued warnings about the work Canadian aerospace companies would lose if Canada dropped out of the F-35 club. “Canadian companies,” he said, “have hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts for that [fighter jet] work, and the government has no intention of ripping up those contracts.”

On the other hand, a senior government official briefing reporters today said it is possible Canada might somehow remain part of the F-35 consortium, even if the government ultimately decides to ask Lockheed Martin to compete with other jet makers for the fighter contract. But after the briefing, asked by Maclean’s how that would work, the official said staying in F-35 group while running a competitive bidding process would be “technically possible but extremely difficult.”

So it seems the reset button has been pushed only as far as taking a look at the alternatives on the market is concerned. The truly tough politics won’t come until the government must decide either to abandon the F-35 project or stick with it. Either flight path will be highly controversial. Whichever it is, one can only guess MacKay won’t be the minister explaining the course ahead.




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A clearer path for fighter jets, but a grim day for Peter MacKay

  1. It is disappointing that the discussion about the replacement for the F18s has descended into a debate about costs and the technical merits of the F35 and its contenders.

    The more important discussion that we all should be having is why Canada needs such a capability. Please, please, please tell the Canadian taxpayers what we need this aircraft for! There is no military requirement for them. We should not burden our children and grandchildren by making them pay for this colossal waste!

    Ask yourself to imagine a credible scenario that could arise and be countered by 65 F35s or, for that matter, fighter aircraft of any type. I doubt if you can come up with a realistic scenario.

    The interception of the odd Russian aircraft just outside our territorial borders has been going on since the 70s. The intercepts were done with CF101s and now with CF18s. The Russian aircraft presented no threat then and they present no threat now. An all out attack would be insane and involve ICBMs. No role for fighter type aircraft.

    Further, why would we, in support of NATO, be buying an aircraft capable of attacking third world nations. That makes no sense to me. Do Canadians want to be a part of that organization? I think not!

    If an airliner approaching any major airport in the world turns rogue it would be on its intended target before any meaningful action could be taken to stop it. No role for fighter aircraft. In this case we must simply be ready to pick up the pieces that such an insane action would cause.

    We cannot defend ourselves against an insane all out massive air attack. No matter, that is not going to happen. Those who covet our resources are buying them! No role here for fighter type aircraft.

    Notwithstanding the foregoing, a few token fighter aircraft for use at air shows are always impressive. What a waste!

    As I see it, the real threat to our sovereignty is an economic threat. The Russians, Chinese and the USA want and need our resources. It is not in their interest to bomb us. Rather, they are buying our country.

    For our part, the threat is that unaffordable actions by our government will bankrupt our country and compromise our ability to do what is necessary to defend against the real threat. To defend our “sovereignty” we need to counter the economic threat to our Arctic, protect our coastal fisheries, deal with internal unrest, root out terrorist cells, and, most importantly, keep our country financially viable. No role for fighter type aircraft.

    In support of our most important ally and neighbour to the south, since we are not a super power, we must ensure that they are never threatened by activities that occur or originate in this country. That will allow them to handle “the big stuff”. They always have. To say otherwise is to be kidding ourselves about our own importance.

    In other words, let the Americans do their thing with their 2400+ F35s and let us spend our dollars wisely so they don’t have to worry about their Northern Border. That would be of great assistance to them.

    We need to spend our defence dollars prudently. Our parliamentarians need to come up with a useful, affordable, realistic role for the CAF. Let us not mortgage the future by buying equipment for traditional symbolic reasons!

    • There is nothing more useful than air power, not just for defense and sovereignty but also for offensive missions like Afghanistan, Kosovo and Libya, or lest we forget, major conflicts like the Korean war or WWII. If Canada cannot step up, then who will? I’m sorry, but passing the buck to a single country to the south is a cop-out.

      • The accomplishments of our armed forces during WWII and Korea are laudable and undeniable. The results from our more recent forays are far less positive.

        There are many of us who believe that we should not be meddling in the affairs of sovereign states that do not pose a threat to us. This is especially so if we have to borrow funds to engage in this madness.

        Let me close this comment with a quote from Time Magazine:

        “It may seem strange to talk about defense cuts while the U.S. is waging one war in Afghanistan, is mopping up a second in Iraq and has just launched a half war in Libya. But those conflicts have made it easy to forget the warning of Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that “the single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.” Which points to an almost tragic irony of Washington’s $700 billion annual appetite for military stores: we are borrowing cash from China to pay for weapons that we would presumably use against it. If the Chinese want to slay us, they don’t need to attack us with their missiles. They just have to call in their loans.”
        Time Magazine

        • Heck we are currently governed by the only sitting world leader who thought Iraq had weapons of mass destructions. Looking at our choices of war over the past 50 years (hell, probably the 20th century plus, overall) doing nothing might have been been the better choice overall.

        • If excessive debt were a reason to disengage, then almost the entire UN Nations peacekeeping force would disappear, NATO would disappear, and pretty well all their interventions anywhere would disappear, leaving regions like the Middle East and Africa entirely on their own as wars rage on, such as the numerous recent wars and uprisings in the Middle East and the perpetual wars in Africa. This is because almost the entire developed world is in debt. Another wonderful consequence is that belligerent nations everywhere, such as North Korea and Iran, would feel free to do as they please, not just in their own countries, but everywhere. North Korea just launched another missile towards Japan for no reason, and you would prefer that nobody pay attention until one of their missiles manages to strike a target.

          • “If excessive debt were a reason to disengage, then almost the entire UN Nations peacekeeping force would disappear”

            Actually many poorer nations do very well out of UN Peacekeeping missions.

          • As a wise gentleman recently said, “without economic freedom we ultimately lose all other freedoms”. Many of those you cite are already finding that out!

        • “There are many of us who believe that we should not be meddling in the affairs of sovereign states that do not pose a threat to us.”

          Do you believe we should intervene to protect civilians from war crimes, if we are able to? I do, and Libya is a perfect example of our responsibility to protect civilians. Jets are the most useful military systems for those kind of conflicts.

          “Further, why would we, in support of NATO, be buying an aircraft capable of attacking third world nations. That makes no sense to me. Do Canadians want to be a part of that organization? I think not!”

          This Canadian absolutely DOES want to be a part of NATO, as do most people I know. NATO serves our interests better than any other supranational organization on the globe.

          • It is difficult to determine what was accomplished by bombing parts of Libya back into the stone age. We certainly didn’t get our hands dirty!

            NATO was formed to protect Western Europe from a perceived threat from Russia and other Eastern Bloc nations. That threat has long since faded away. To justify its existence NATO is madly searching for new roles. It seems to have become the military arm of the UN. An otherwise toothless organization.

          • NATO’S current role is clear as a blue sky. The role of NATO is to protect and further western interest wether they be geopolitical or economic. The justification of its existence has been clear since day one. First it was to protect us from the Soviet Union and their allies. Now it is to protect us from the proliferation of terrorism, extremism andweapons of mass destruction. All of this so that you and I can enjoy the freedoms and privileges that we do now. You seem to think that Canada should play no role in any of this. Like we have no resposibility to the international community to do our part. You talk of economic freedom as if withdrawing from our alliances would achieve that? Let me answer that for you. Our neighbours to the south would not look kindly upon ou withdrawal from NATO. Seeing that they are our biggest trading partner by far upsetting them in such a way would be ill advised. Rocking Canada-US relations could and most likely would have devestating effects on our economy. Not to mention we would need to spend an extraordinary amount on our military just to secure our sovereignty if we were not involved in NATO and NORAD. We cannot look at everything as a seperate issue otherwise I would agree with you, but there is always a big picture and our military and the need for air superiority fighter jets are an intregal part in that big picture.

          • There are many things that we must do to protect our sovereignty and contribute to the defence of North America against the new threat to North America – terrorism. Having 65 token fighter aircraft is not one of them.

            While some of us like to huff and puff about Canada’s importance on the world stage, in fact, the fact that we did not have any fighter aircraft would pretty much go unnoticed in the rest of the world.

    • Do Canadians want to be a part of that organization? I think not!

      If you want to completely undermine US-Canada relations on all matters, I can think of no more effective means than a Canadian withdrawal from NATO.

      I mean, you could have a Speech from the Throne include specific, gratuitous, and obscene insults of named mothers, wives, and daughters of senior US officials in both parties. But that could be patched up by Canada replacing the Prime Minister and denouncing his actions. A withdrawal from NATO would be harder to fix.

      • Fine. So, how many billion does it take to buy off NATO? Does it have to be 45 billion or could we get them off our backs for cheaper?
        I do think that if the real function of these jets is to deal with blackmail from NATO, that’s cool but we should be having the policy debate on that basis. If the question is, what hoops do we have to jump through in order not to get the mammoth next door sufficiently upset with us to cause us problems, then dealing with that as the question puts us on sounder terms to find a policy than asinine claims about the importance of stealth in our fighters, and similar bumpf about 5th generations and whatnot. Stealth is unimportant and F-35-type stealth seems to be largely obsolete before the planes even exist.
        For instance, if what we really are supposed to be doing is making sure we can help NATO bomb third world countries, fine. Buy A-10 bombers at $10-15 million a pop. They work, they carry plenty payload, and we can get more bombing capacity for the cost of two F-35s than the entire fleet of 65 F-35s would get us.

    • Unfortunately Canada has no choice but to maintain a capable armed services. As much as you, and many other Canadians, think this not neccessary, it is. The security that you enjoy everyday is not to be taken for granted. It is cemented in our alliances with the US and other countries through our participation in organizations such as NORAD and NATO. Canada is one of the most well off countries in the world we have an obligation to contribute militarily in any UN or NATO sanctioned intervention. Besides all of that, in a world where every nation that can is rearming and upgrading their militaries do you really think Canada will be allowed to burden our allies even more by not having an air superiority fighter jet capability? It is ignorant even to mention it. NATO’S number one mission since the fall of the Soviet Union has been to ensure that the interest of western countries worldwide are furthered and protected. Whether you agree with the methods or not, you reap the benefits of them everyday by living in and enjoying all the freedoms and privileges that exist in Canada.

      • CEOs and major stockholders reap the benefits every day, no doubt. But it doesn’t matter whether I reap the benefits . . . opposing something immoral from which I reap benefits is all the more principled. I’m prepared to believe that many Conservatives would never oppose anything from which they receive benefits, no matter how vile, but I’m surprised when they admit it.Still, we are in NATO and NORAD. NORAD might even have something to do with security. NATO clearly doesn’t as you yourself admit, unless you mean security from the US bought by doing whatever they say. Would tie in with the question of what Canada would be “allowed” to do. It is apparently ignorant even to think about questioning orders.
        On the third hand, I’m not sure I see where “capable armed services” and “F-35″ have anything to do with one another. There is, hopefully, a limit to the degree to which we must follow lemming-like over the “every nation that can is rearming and upgrading their militaries” cliff no matter the cost. Given some percentage of budget devoted to the military, the amount a plane costs matters. If F-35 costs twice as much as any other plane and five times as much as older planes with better range and combat ability aside from the largely useless stealth, how do you get a capable military by wasting money on it?

  2. go with the best jet we build CF 105 Avro Arrow

    • I’ve been thnking seriously about this kind of thing for the first time in the past few days, and I realize there’s no reason we shouldn’t shoot for something like 90% Canadian-made equipment by 2020 or something like that. Thing is, any realistic threat to our actual borders could either be turned away by half a dozen mounties with machine guns, or is too big that we can’t devote the budget to it AT ALL (unless we decide to acquire nuclear missiles). So after the first miniscule bit of armed forces, mainly for show, the rest is gravy. Why not keep the $ in Canada and create Canadian jobs? Keep the budget the same so there’s no additional cost, it’ll buy less but most of the $ spent is on stuff we won’t be needing anyway.

      • …and the engineering and research might well have commerical uses or military uses other countries would be interested in buying off us, further contributing to the economy

  3. Harper is the flawed leader. His organization could be fear-less when it is fear-full. Fear-full organizations corrupt knowledge as it is transferred up and around. It is fear-full because Harper thinks fear-less individuals are good to have around. Harper therefore rewards, attracts and empowers psychopaths. It is not the psychopaths fault they create havoc inside an organization that to be fear-less as a whole needs to appreciate that most of us are collaborative in nature. Ad-hoc collaboration is what give our species an advantage when “Confronting the Tiger”. Harper is a predator.

  4. There is nothing wrong with teaming up with the US air force, Leasing THEIR high tech Expensive$$ jets to train OUR Canadian Pilots! Money Saved$$.

  5. CANADA should be a NEUTRAL country, and mind its own business and not do What BIG BROTHER is doing, the war mongering USA.

  6. I don’t know why the press castigates McKay – Harper is behind everything, they don’t make a move without Harper’s okay. Again, and still, they’re protecting Harper.

  7. just order them and get our RCAF the planes that they need.

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