The government’s elaborately orchestrated announcement today of its decision to spend $9 billion, plus undisclosed billions more in maintenance costs, to buy 65 fighter jets was heavy on touting the purchase as a boon to Canadian aerospace companies.
Interesting as the matter of defence industry jobs and profits might be, however, the more important question is surely why the Canadian Forces needs Lockheed Martin’s F-35 stealth fighters. After all, they’re not the sort hardware that’s obviously useful for the sorts of jobs—fighting insurgents in Kandahar’s orchards, say, or delivering emergency relief to Haiti—that seem most pressing in the post-cold war era.
So when Defence Minister Peter MacKay was pointedly asked in the news conference this morning for “specific examples of the uses of these aircraft,” I listened carefully for what I thought might be the key answer of the day.
I expected him to sketch some military scenarios. In what sort of likely conflict or anticipated crisis will we deploy expensive fighter jets? Instead, MacKay surprised me by stressing mainly the challenges of recruiting and retaining military pilots. I’ve read that air force pilots leaving for private sector jobs is an issue, but I hadn’t figured that factor would feature so prominently in the minister’s thinking on a massive procurement program.
He touched briefly on Canada’s need to patrol its airspace and participate in NATO missions—he didn’t mention what sort—with allies that are also expected to buy the F-35. But here’s most fully developed part of MacKay’s answer:
“We have very capable pilots currently serving in the Canadian Forces. We want to continue that trend. By the year 2016, 2020, they will be asked to fly 35-, 40-year-old aircraft. So it helps a great deal, I can assure you, in recruiting, to have new gear, new equipment, that is state of the art. That is a very important part of our regeneration of personnel and pilots in particular. So having that platform capability is something that is of great importance to the continued growth of the Canadian Forces and the development of our pilots.”