Talking F-35s with a former head of the air force

Lieutenant-General Angus Watt retired about a year ago as chief of air staff in the Canadian
Forces. That gives him a particular vantage point on the government’s plan to spend about $16 billion to buy and maintain 65 F-35 fighter jets—close enough to know the details, but a bit detached from the ferocious debate that’s erupted over the sole-sourced procurement.

Not surprisingly, Watt is a big fan of the Lockheed Martin jet, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. He’s a sharp critic, though, of the job the federal government is doing selling the deal to the Canadian public. This is an edited version of his conversation with me earlier this week about the controversial F-35 project.

Q. Do you think the F-35 arrangement as it now stands makes sense for Canada?

A. I do. It’s the best of all the available choices. It provides the best value for money, the best platform to address the security needs of Canada through to 2050, which is probably how long we’ll have this airplane.

Q. I’ll come back to why you think it’s the best jet. But you mention best value for money. We usually make sure of that by holding a competitive bidding process. Why not do so in this case?

A. That’s a good question. I’m not personally opposed to a competition. But the circumstances of a competition would be difficult to manage. There aren’t a lot of competitors, apart from the F-35. In fact, it’s questionable if there are any.

Q. So if we had a proper competitive process, wouldn’t the F-35 be the clear front-runner or even the only bidder?

A. What happens then, and I’ve seen this before in other aircraft programs, is when the government specifies [its requirements] and it turns out that only one aircraft is even close to meeting them, then the other, lesser competitors will start to attack the specifications. Rather than competing the aircraft, they compete the specifications. Then we end up in a big debate about whether we need fifth-generation technology, sensors, all that sort of equipment, rather than competing on the basis of the available aircraft.

Q. For which aircraft purchase has disputing the specs become the issue?

A. Fixed-wing search and rescue. It has paralyzed the department.

Q. But how can we know that all those specifications the F-35 apparently meets—the attributes of a so-called fifth-generation fighter—are really what Canada needs?

A. The Department of National Defence, I know, did a very extensive analysis—not a true competition, I understand—of all the available platforms. It clearly showed the F-35 was head and shoulders above all the other ones. If they wanted to run a competition, fine. But I’m worried about that matter of attacking the specifications.

Q. On the need for a new fighter jet, some critics have pointed to the government’s emphasis on patroling the Arctic as an outmoded Cold War preoccupation. Isn’t the threat of Russian bombers long past?

A. One of the problems is that the government has not had a very good communications strategy here. They essentially went out with the announcement, with very few details, and asked everybody to accept it. I personally have seen the work that underpins the project and I know they have a very good outline of what capabilities are needed. There is enough of a package to show the Canadian people what the needs of Canadian security are for the next 30 or 40 years.

Q. And what are those needs?

A. It’s not just the NORAD need of chasing aging Soviet bombers in the Arctic. That’s a very narrow view. Canada’s interests are global. Our prosperity and security come from our engagement around the world. You can’t just draw a line around North America and say, ‘We’re not going to participate in any security operations outside those borders, but we’re certainly going to take economic advantage of that security in order to gain prosperity for our nation.’

So [without new fighter jets] when NATO decides to intervene—like they did in Kosovo the late nineties, and did a bombing campaign with our F-18s participating—we would not be able to participate. To me that undermines our credibility and our influence. Other nations, our allies and our potential foes, notice. Participating in an alliance of like-minded nations under the rubric of UN or NATO is very much in our security interests.

Q. And exactly how does the F-35 fit into that sort of scenario?

A. If we send our troops abroad on some operation in the future, I don’t think it’s good enough to say, ‘Well, we’ll send our troops over there, but we’re not going to provide air support because some other nation will.’

Q. Is the Afghanistan experience one of the reasons we haven’t heard a lot about the F-35’s capability to providing close air support for ground troops engaged in counter-insurgency fighting? I’m thinking of how using air strikes in Afghanistan has become very controversial because of civilian casualties.

A. I spent six months in Afghanistan as deputy commander for air. I was essentially the air component commander for ISAF in 2006. I can tell you that air power saves soldiers’ lives. There is a good case to be made but it just hasn’t been made.

Q. You don’t hear the Conservative government making that case now?

A. Overall communications have been weak. But we’ve seen that before with the government. They are very parsimonious, shall we say, with their communications. We need a rigorous debate. We need to hash it out in public.

Q. Let’s say the case for new jet fighters was more compellingly established. Wouldn’t that still leave open the option of buying a cheaper, less cutting-edge fighter than the F-35, one that’s already on the market?

A. The F-35 gives us a jet at the beginning of its technological life span. If you buy a jet at the end of its life span, that means in five to ten years it’s going to be obsolete. That means you’re going to have to try to add technology and that’s really tough. The growth potential, the ability to evolve this jet over the next 30-40 years, far surpasses anything else on the market.

Q. There are defence analysts who say the really technologically advanced idea would be to shift to relying more on pilotless drones. What about that option?

A. It’s not there yet. There’s going to be one more generation of manned fighters, carrying through to 2030, 2040. The technology is not mature enough yet for what we call UCAVs—Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles.

Q. There’s another line of criticism—that the F-35 is a basically an expensive toy, and Canada just doesn’t need a cool stealth fighter.

A. Stealth is not some voodoo technology that lets you go in and willy-nilly take over Third World nations at will. It simply allows the pilot to survive. It isn’t necessary for every mission, but for some. For instance, reconnaissance. They can go quietly into territory, undetected, and come back safely. Or they can do a mission like the Kosovo bombing campaign, where there was a fairly sophisticated air defence system, and come back completely safely.

Q. A final question. The F-35 purchase, if it goes ahead, will be hugely expensive. Even if it’s the best choice among fighter jets, isn’t there a strong argument that, in a time of spending restraint, Canada could make more practical use of other new equipment, like icebreakers or those search and rescue planes?

A. That’s a false dilemma, one often posed about military spending. If you do this, you preclude that. One of the key elements that the military struggles with is to preserve a balance in all areas. Having an incredible capability in the air, while denuding the army and sinking the navy, doesn’t work. There’s a whole range of programs that seek to maintain that balance. In the planning cycle, there is that balance, and buying these fighters does not preclude those other things.

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