Staples op-ed: Why the F-35 is the wrong plane for Canada

Last week the opposition Liberals stepped up the challenge to the government on the proposed $16-billion program to replace Canada’s fleet of CF-18 fighter-bombers with 65 US-built F-35 stealth fighters. This could be setting the stage for a showdown between the two parties, suggesting it could become a major issue in the next election.

Liberal MPs Marc Garneau and Dominic LeBlanc set out the following questions on the F-35 deal:

  • What are the defence priorities and the domestic and foreign mission requirements that our new fighter jets must be able to support?
  • What are the roles, capabilities and operational performance requirements that any new fighter must be able to meet in order to support these future domestic and international priorities and missions?
  • What evidence does the government have to demonstrate that their deal gets the right equipment for our Air Force while achieving the lowest cost and best value for taxpayer dollars?

These are all important questions, but the first is probably the most fundamental when approaching any major defence purchase. Without a clear understanding of the roles that equipment needs to fulfil, there is no way to assess the cost or ancillary matters such as the value of the industrial benefits.

In the past, we have raised concerns when government policy deviates from these objectives, especially when special interests or non-defence priorities begin creeping into our defence policy, or when the military establishment fails to adapt to the modern context.

Such is the case with the proposed procurement of a fleet of F-35 stealth fighters. Canada does not need “flying Cadillacs” to provide security to Canada and North America. The government, air force and defence companies have made it clear why they want them, but not why Canada needs them, or why Canadians should pay for them.

Let’s consider what role we need aircraft to fulfil. The traditional roles are domestic security, including the defence of North America, and expeditionary missions abroad.

Under NORAD, our aircraft provide surveillance and control functions. We monitor the airspace and can intercept aircraft if required. After the Cold War, NORAD no longer had much of a mission. But after 9/11, for obvious reasons, monitoring internal air traffic became much more important than watching the approaches to North America.

For missions abroad, our CF-18s have played a negligible role. In 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan, they were never deployed. Only in the first Gulf War, and in Kosovo—essentially only twice since we bought the planes in the 1980s—have they been used on an expeditionary mission.

A new policy should be developed that acknowledges this reality. We should instead focus on domestic roles and curtail and phase out the capability of deploying fighter-bombers abroad. Domestically, we don’t need stealth fighters to greet aging Russian planes, and the focus should be on post-9/11 needs.

The potential to overstate the Russian threat over more urgent anti-hijacking needs was endorsed by the head of NORAD himself, US Admiral James Winnefeld Jr., speaking at an early morning event in Ottawa on Oct. 15.

Admiral Winnefeld said he does not anticipate any military challengers in the Arctic, and pointed to the Arctic Council and the UNCLOS (if the US endorses it) as the best venues to ensure co-operation in the region.

Instead, he said, his focus has been on preventing another 9/11 hijacking incident, pointing out that NORAD and US Northern Command played such a role in the background of the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

For use in North America, the F-35 stealth fighter is ill-suited for our needs by design.

Let’s be clear about what this plane has been developed for: it is a first-strike fighter-bomber intended for use in “shock and awe” attacks. Its stealth and weapons systems are designed to be used in the first wave of aircraft screaming over the beaches to bomb cities and military bases on the first night of war.

Canada will never need this capability and Canadians should not be asked to pay for it.

In my report published last week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Pilot Error: Why the F-35 stealth fighter is wrong for Canada, I argued that Canada does not need the F-35 stealth fighter either for North American or for expeditionary roles, and that the Canadian government should not proceed with the planned procurement of the F-35.

Instead, Canada should curtail the expeditionary role for Canadian fighter aircraft and take the time to assess which aircraft is best suited for the military’s contribution to the security of North America.

The good news is that having just completed a $2.6-billion upgrade to the CF-18s to keep them in service until at least 2017, there is time to rethink our needs and find the right aircraft to meet them, at the best price.

We could even stretch the life of Canada’s existing CF-18 fleet by restricting the aircraft to the North American or domestic air surveillance and control role. The government should also investigate the acquisition of the next generation of unarmed long-range, long-endurance pilotless aircraft, and use the money saved by these measures to contribute to Canadian and global security in more effective ways.

Once our defence policy for North America has been defined and agreed upon, then the government should provide sufficient funding for equipment that meets those needs.

We have the time available to us to take our time. Let’s use it to change the way we think about our aircraft. We don’t need them for bombing missions, and there is in reality no Russian bomber threat. Sixteen billion dollars is a lot of money, and we can’t afford to make a mistake as big as this. Since there is no contract yet for the F-35s, only stated intentions, let’s engage Canadians and get the right tool for our legitimate defensive needs.

This op-ed by Steven Staples was published in Embassy on October 20, 2010.

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