Staples op-ed: The F-35 stealth fighters and Eisenhower’s final warning

The F-35 stealth fighters and Eisenhower’s final warning

by Steven Staples

Fifty years ago this week, on January 17, 1961, Americans gathered around their TV sets to watch President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell speech from the White House. He chose his words carefully, and warned the American people about the growth in economic power and political influence of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes,” he said.

For some, Eisenhower’s warning may just be a product of his time. The Soviet Union was on the rise and the U.S. military consumed much more government spending than it does now. But is there still not a message for Americans, who continue to spend nearly as much as the rest of the world’s nations combined on their armed forces, and even for Canadians, who send their troops to fight alongside them?

Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex’s “total influence – economic, political, even spiritual” is certainly evident in the modern debate over whether Canada should purchase a fleet of F-35 stealth fighters for the air force.

Canadians are being asked to spend between $16 and $21 billion of public dollars, according to Department of National Defence estimates, on these U.S.-built fighter-bombers, without a clear explanation of why they are needed for our protection.

The plane’s stealth and ground-attack capabilities make it ill suited for patrolling the Arctic. The F-35 is made for “shock and awe” bombing missions abroad, but Canada has only dropped bombs from its aircraft once since the Second World War (in Kosovo). And the air force never sent its current fleet of CF-18 fighter-bombers to Afghanistan during a decade of war.

As President Eisenhower might have predicted, the forces allied in favour of the F-35 program are defence firms and the military. In fact, it is sometimes hard to tell them apart. The former Second in Command of the Canadian Air Force, Major-General Richard Bastien, is now vice-president of the U.S.-owned aerospace company L-3 MAS, based in Montreal. Predictably, he told Members of Parliament in October that “the Government must do its utmost to ensure that the F-35 is not only a military success, but also a success for industry in Canada.”

Likewise the plane’s U.S. builder, Lockheed Martin, has hired one of Ottawa’s most successful defence industry lobby firms, CFN Consultants, which is composed almost entirely of retired officers from the senior ranks of the military.

Auditor General Sheila Fraser warned MPs that the F-35 project is very risky for taxpayers.

President Eisenhower, a war hero and former Five-Star General, was not a pacifist. Instead he called for “balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual.” Many in Canada support having a military for natural disasters, search and rescue, protecting our sovereignty, and UN peacekeeping. But this is contingent upon a reasonable cost to the taxpayer, and must be considered alongside other priorities such as health care.

In an earlier speech, President Eisenhower put the choice starkly: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”

Fortunately, today we have much better social programs in Canada, but as the federal deficit increases, military spending is coming into direct competition with social programs for public spending. Clearly, with record-high military spending, coupled with a record-high federal deficit, it is fiscally irresponsible to make a military purchase of this magnitude at this time.

How will this be resolved? Eisenhower worried that the influence of a military-industrial complex would undermine the nation’s democracy. The F-35 debate is a test to see whether Canada’s military-industrial complex has succeeded in unduly influencing our democracy.

As President Eisenhower said fifty years ago, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Some things never change.

Steven Staples is the President of the Rideau Institute, an independent defence and foreign policy research group based in Ottawa.

This commentary was published in The Hill Times on January 17, 2011.

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