Defense News: F-35 Likely To Shape Canadian Election

Defense News 03/21/2011

By DAVID PUGLIESE VICTORIA, British Columbia — Cana­da’s proposed purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be an issue in the upcoming federal election, a rare occasion when a defense mat­ter has factored into political cam­paigns here, analysts said.

The ruling Conservative govern­ment of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and various opposition par­ties have been gearing up for a po­tential election that could be an­nounced in a matter of weeks.

The government has been running political advertisements attacking its opponents while highlighting its fis­cal stewardship of the country. In January, the main opposition party, the Liberals, ran TV ads attacking the Harper government’s proposed purchase of the F-35 as too expen­sive and fiscally irresponsible.

The Liberals and the New Democ­ratic Party, which also opposes the purchase, were provided with more ammunition March 10, when Parlia­mentary Budget Officer Kevin Page concluded the F-35 acquisition would cost about 29 billion Canadi­an dollars ($28 billion), almost dou­ble the estimate claimed by Harper. That sparked claims in the House of Commons that the Conservatives were misleading the public about the true cost of the fighter aircraft.

“The stage is set for the F-35 to be­come an election issue,” said Steve Staples, president of the Rideau In­stitute and a high-profile critic of the purchase. “You have the opposition portraying this as a money issue, al­leging the Conservatives are poor managers because of the [F-35’s] high costs and the Conservatives po­sitioning themselves as taking care of the country’s security needs.” The last time that a defense issue played out at the polls, Staples said, was in 1993, when then-Liberal Par­ty leader Jean Chrétien campaigned on canceling a 5 billion Canadian dollar Conservative government plan to buy maritime helicopters.

The acquisition came at a time when Canada’s deficit had grown significantly. Chrétien won the elec­tion and, as prime minister, fol­lowed through with his promise to cancel the helicopter purchase.

The Conservatives have suggested that Canadians could go to the polls sometime in May, but no date has been set.

However, they have acknowl­edged the F-35 will likely be an elec­tion issue. In November, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said as much when he complained that the Liber­als were trying to scare the public about the F-35 deal, “ripping a page out of their playbook” from the 1993 election campaign involving the hel­icopter program.

“It very well could be an election issue,” MacKay said. “It’s a shame. I don’t want to see politics played out on the backs of the military, as we’ve seen in the past.” But opposition parties are accus­ing the Conservative government of playing politics by low-balling the actual purchase price of the F-35.

In July, the government announced it would buy 65 F-35s. It estimated the cost would be 9 billion Canadian dollars with another 5 billion to 7 bil­lion Canadian dollars estimated for a 20-year support package.

But the Parliamentary Budget Of­fice (PBO) report, “An Estimate of the Fiscal Impact of Canada’s Pro­posed Acquisition of the F-35 Light­ning II Joint Strike Fighter,” called those figures into question.

Queen’s University professor Doug Bland, who helped with a peer re­view of the 65-page report, said there are many unknowns with the F-35.

“I don’t know how much these planes will cost, nor does the gov­ernment or anybody else,” said Bland, the defense management studies chairman in the School of Policy Studies in Kingston, Ontario. “The PBO used mathematical mod­els to estimate costs. But I general­ly think the PBO is right: These jets are going to cost more than the gov­ernment originally estimated.” Bland said other issues — such as whether the F-35 was the right air­plane to purchase, or whether a competitive bidding strategy was followed — weren’t considered by the PBO.

The report also prompted the Bloc Quebecois opposition party to with­draw its support for the F-35 deal. It had supported the purchase be­cause it believed it could provide business for Quebec’s aerospace companies. But the Bloc, like the other two opposition parties, is now calling on the Harper government to cancel the acquisition.

“Such an explosion of astronomi­cal costs is unacceptable,” said Claude Bachand, the party’s defense critic.

The PBO report also noted that Canada has not signed any binding contract for the acquisition. It is not under any legal obligation to pro­ceed with the F-35 purchase, the re­port concluded.

The report was peer-reviewed by the U.S. Congressional Budget Of­fice, Australian Strategic Policy In­stitute and Queen’s University.

But Laurie Hawn, MacKay’s par­liamentary secretary, said the PBO did not properly compile the neces­sary figures, and the government stands by its earlier cost estimates.

The Liberal Party has vowed to freeze the deal, considered the largest military procurement in Canadian history, if it wins the election. It would instead hold a competition involving a number of aircraft.

The Conservatives have already launched their public relations cam­paign in support of the F-35, with the prime minister and cabinet ministers visiting aerospace firms to highlight the industrial benefits that will come from the aircraft’s purchase.

Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin’s general manager of F-35 program in­tegration, said the first deliveries of F-35s to Canada are expected in 2017. Those will be a small number of training aircraft, and Canadian pi­lots will receive instruction on those in the U.S.

Burbage told Defense News that he believes the Canadian govern­ment is fully committed to the F-35 program, despite what party politics might play out.

Canada plans to purchase the con­ventional-takeoff-and-landing ver­sion of the F-35. Ë

E-mail: dpugliese@defensenews.com.

U.S. AIR FORCE

Controversial Plan: Canada will buy 65 conventional-takeoff-and-landing F-35s, similar to the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A.

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1 Comment

  1. Jeremy

    April 11th, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Is it true that Liberals were first to enter talks about these jets?

    Also, what is the deal for royalties that I hear about, that we’ll lose out on if we cancel this buy and then end up entering a procurement process for the same jets later one?



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