Published Dec. 10, 2012, in The Waterloo Region Record.
The three most difficult words for any politician to utter is, “I was wrong.” Or “I screwed up.” If the process of getting from a wrong decision to a right decision involves admitting mistakes, it can take a devil of a long time.
It has taken the Harper government seven years to concede it was wrong – dead wrong – when it decided to equip the Royal Canadian Air Force with F-35 Lightning II jet fighters to replace its aging CF-18 Hornets. Shortly after taking office in 2006, the Conservatives signed a memorandum of agreement to purchase the 65 supposedly state-of-the-art aircraft from Lockheed Martin in the United States.
One could argue, I suppose, that a new government didn’t really know what it was doing; it had never bought military hardware before. However, it had no such excuse four years later, in July 2010, when it announced the cabinet had decided to go ahead with the purchase of the F-35s – without bothering to check out competing aircraft for price, performance or availability.
I started writing columns questioning the F-35 decision as early as June 14, 2010. In a column on July 19 that year, I angered a lot of Conservatives and military aficionados by leading with this question: “Are the heads in the Harper cabinet screwed on tight?”
As it turned out, the answer was “No,” although I didn’t know that for sure then. All I knew was it didn’t make sense for a government facing a $54 billion annual deficit, as Ottawa was then, to spend $16 billion ($9 billion for the 65 planes plus $7 million for a maintenance contract) to purchase aircraft that seemed so ill-equipped to serve Canada’s military requirements.
Silly me, I didn’t know that $16 billion was a fiction, a low-ball fantasy, concocted by the military and defence department bureaucracy and whispered into the ears of gullible ministers who failed conspicuously to do due diligence. Once the parliamentary budget officer and auditor general got into act, more realistic numbers began to emerge – $25 billion, $29.3 billion, and now something north of $40 billion seems likely to be the final pricetag. And this, please note, does not include any spare fighters to replace those that break down or crash.
Cost aside, it has been apparent for at least three years that the F-35 is the wrong plane for Canada. It is an attack aircraft and Canada is not in the air-attack business. It is not the right plane to patrol Canada’s long coastlines and high north. For one thing, it has only a single engine, making it hazardous for long-distance patrols (the CF-18 it would replace has two engines); its range is shorter than the CF-18’s; and the F-35 is slower than some of the other aircraft on the market today.
It’s principal selling point seems to be that it is a “stealth” aircraft, able to slip undetected past enemy radar. Advances in radar technology, however, have reduced the effectiveness of the stealth feature.
The government plans to announce a “reappraisal” of its F-35 decision in the next few days. Don’t expect Stephen Harper to announce that he or anyone in his government has screwed up; that would be expecting too much. Don’t expect any heads to roll, although they should. And don’t expect an announcement that the F-35 is dead. But it is. This bird will never fly the friendly skies of Canada.
What the government will do is announce that, due to soaring cost estimates, it is relaunching the acquisition process. It will start with the question it should have asked seven years ago: What kind of plane does Canada need? It will ask another question it should have asked back then: What aircraft will best meet Canada’s current and future needs?
Just watch the lobbying by aircraft makers. It will be fierce. After all, it isn’t every day a prize worth as much as $40 billion is put up for grabs.