“The Silent US hand guiding Canada’s F-35 Debate”
Scott Taylor 09 Feb 2011
With all the buzz around Ottawa about a potential spring election, there remains a drought of hot-button political issues over which the coming campaign will be contested. One exception to this, of course, is the Conservative government’s controversial commitment to acquire 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
Although no actual contract has been signed, the Harper Tories remain adamant that they will proceed with the purchase of the stealth aircraft, which, at an initial cost of $9 billion and an estimated $7 billion in future maintenance expenses, would make this the largest military project expenditure in Canada’s history.
The Liberals sense there is a natural public aversion to spending such vast sums on military equipment and with the NDP are advocating that a competition be held to select Canada’s next generation of fighter aircraft, rather than continuing with a sole-source purchase of the F-35. The Bloc Quebecois could care less which jet we buy as long as it results in high-tech jobs in Quebec.
Thanks to recent revelations made public via WikiLeaks, it is safe to surmise that the US State Department is the unseen puppeteer making Harper do the F-35 dance. The embarrassing documents contain American diplomatic correspondence detailing how they used a public “carrot” and a private “stick” approach to convince Norway to buy the F-35.
A “lessons learned” cable from the US embassy in Oslo reads: “We needed to avoid any appearance of undue pressuring…. We opted for ‘choosing the JSF will maximize the relationship’ [between the US and Norway] as our main public line. In private we were much more forceful.”
The backroom strong-arm tactics of the US State Department obviously did the trick as the American Embassy subsequently reported to Washington, “The tide has turned in Norway…. The media have recently run a number of articles from active duty and retired officers extolling the strengths of the F-35.”
While those cables may have been penned in 2008, it would seem that there is no need to change a winning playbook. Fast-forward to the Jan. 24 edition of the Ottawa Citizen, wherein former Canadian air force generals Angus Watt and Paul Manson penned a joint editorial entitled, “The truth about those jets.” This was written as a myth vs. reality, 10-item opinion piece, the gist of which was to extol the strengths of the F-35. Sound familiar?
While Mr. Manson may have been telling the truth as he sees it, unfortunately he did not tell the whole truth about his career credentials.
While he was indeed once the chief of the defence staff for the Canadian Forces and a top project officer on the acquisition of the air force’s current fleet of CF-18 fighter aircraft, Manson forgot to mention his post-military stint as the president of Lockheed Martin Canada. Given that Lockheed Martin is the main manufacturer of the F-35, this should be considered a salient point to note for readers.
Luckily, Steven Staples, director of the Rideau Institute and a long-time thorn in the side of the military establishment, ousted Manson’s Lockheed Martin association in a letter to the editor the following day.
Next up to bat was none other than Lt.-Gen. André Deschamps, the current chief of air staff. In the latest edition of the official Canadian Military Journal, Deschamps opined that the F-35 “is the right fighter aircraft for Canada.” The format of the article is that of six rhetorical questions followed by predictable answers invariably extolling the strengths of the F-35.
The first question Deschamps posed to himself is one that I’m sure many Canadians have asked after hearing that this project will set us back $16 billion in tax dollars, and that is: “Why fighters?”
According to Deschamps, “manned fighters are essential to our ability to exercise control and sovereignty over our airspace in Canada, and to conduct operations abroad. This is a fact of modern airpower and all industrialized nations acknowledge it as such.”
In an era where the trend in aviation development is that of unmanned aerial vehicles and pilot-less aircraft, one could argue that Deschamps’s “because everyone else is doing it” argument is somewhat short-sighted. Back at the turn of the last century, the armies of all industrialized nations still fielded large formations of cavalry. In retrospect, that fact in itself would not have justified the investment of billions of dollars into faster and stronger horses.
These are of course only the opening salvos in what promises to be a long and heated battle over the F-35 purchase. One can only wonder just how “forceful” the US State Department will be with Harper before the dust settles.
Scott Taylor is editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine.