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F-35 fighters not what Canada needs

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F-35 fighter jet

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“Canada does not need fighter aircraft! Buying them would waste upward of $45-billion.” -- C.R. (Buzz) Nixon, former deputy minister of national defence, letter to the Globe and Mail, June 27, 2014

Someone in the addled world of Ottawa should pay heed to Buzz Nixon. He knows whereof he speaks, having been the deputy defence minister the last time the government went shopping for fighter aircraft.

It was on Nixon's watch that the government of the day (Trudeau Liberal) decided in 1977 to replace Canada's aging war planes -- the single-engine CF-104 Starfighter, based in Europe with NATO (and known among pilots, unfondly, as "The Widowmaker") and the twin-engine CF-101 Voodoo, based in Canada and assigned to continental defence under the NORAD umbrella.

The policy-makers of Nixon's day wanted several things. They wanted one aircraft to replace both the Starfighter and the Voodoo; that would help to keep the price and operating costs down. They wanted an off-the-shelf model with proven capability. They wanted an aircraft with two engines for the sake of reliability and pilot safety on long-distance patrols across the North and over the oceans off our coasts.

With a budget of roughly $2.4 billion, Nixon's people went shopping for 130 to 150 new fighters. They organized a competition. Six aircraft makers from the United States and Europe made pitches, offering a total of seven models.

By 1978 (things moved more quickly in those days), the government had a short list of three aircraft from which it selected the McDonnell Douglas Hornet, which became the CF-18. It ended up buying 138 of them for $4 billion (prices in the military sector have a quicksilver quality); that works out to about $9 billion in today's dollars.

Fast forward a generation. The CF-18, which proved to be an excellent choice, is nearing the end of its service life. Since it came to office in 2006, the Harper government has been stewing over a replacement. It doesn't know what it wants.

Not having a thought-out defence policy, the government doesn't know what sort of military aircraft Canada may need for the future. It doesn’t even know, as Buzz Nixon suggests, whether Canada needs fighter aircraft at all.

Common sense suggests that the policy come first, then a determination of the need -- if any -- for fighter aircraft, then a competition be held to select the aircraft that would best serve the policy objectives.

Not knowing their own mind, the Harper Conservatives listened to all the vested interests who whispered (or shouted) into their ear that Canada not only needed new fighter aircraft, but it needed the most sophisticated and expensive warplane in history. That would be the F-35 Lightning, a single-engine stealth fighter by Lockheed Martin in the United States.

The F-35 was the choice of the U.S. administration and of what former president Dwight Eisenhower once denounced as the powerful "military-industrial complex" in that in country, which also operates as a potent lobby in Canada. The Harper government listened and agreed to buy 65 F-35s for a price that it told Canadians would be $16 billion.

There were two problems. At the time, the F-35 did not yet exist; the evolution from artist’s concept to fighting machine would be fraught with delays, production problems, performance issues – and wild price inflation (to $45 billion in Buzz Nixon’s informed estimate). Two years ago, the Tories ordered a review of its F-35 commitment. That review apparently led right back to the F-35, without any competition to confirm the wisdom of the choice.

It was reported last week, however, that the prime minister has removed the fighter aircraft decision from the cabinet agenda in order to give ministers more time to digest information and to think about it. Theirs could be a watershed decision for the country, especially if they address two fundamental questions. First, does Canada really need fighter aircraft? Second, aren’t there much better uses for $45 billion?

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. F-35 fighter jetHis column appears every Monday in Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury. He welcomes comments at geoffstevens@sympatico.ca

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