HALIFAX—The Liberals’ cheeky fan dance over the F-35 fighter jet is getting a little tiresome.
It is also playing with political fire.
One upon a time, when there was no Prince Charming shortage in Canadian politics, it was all so very clear. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, then acting as Prince-in-Waiting, flat out declared that Canada would not be buying the F-35 to replace the country’s geriatric F-18s.
Why was that so refreshing? Largely because the Harper Conservatives had told what appear to be so many lies over their six-year push to acquire this stealth fighter that Canadians developed whopper fatigue. The PM himself hated answering questions about the troubled jet so much that he declared it should not even be a campaign issue.
Think about that.
At the time, the F-35 was the most expensive military acquisition in Canadian history—even at the fictitious price the Harperites insisted it would be paying for 65 of these then-experimental aircraft. Their number was $15-billion; parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page, a Harper appointment, put reality at $29-billion. That is not sticker shock; that is enough of a spread to have pencil-heads exploding like over-ripe tomatoes.
Never mind that the government proceeded on this boondoggle on a sole source basis—a practice that procurement expert Alan Williams declared adds 20 per cent to the final cost.
Never mind that Kevin Page’s review of the proposed fighter jet acquisition led him to conclude that the Department of National Defence may hav kept two separate sets of books on the F-35—one for departmental and cabinet use, the other for public and parliamentary purposes.
Never mind that then defence minister Peter MacKay, who hopped in and out of a plywood mockup of the F-35 like the Energizer Bunny, grossly twisted the maintenance costs of the proposed new fleet.
Kevin Page declared that the actual maintenance costs for the F-35 would be 42 per cent higher than for the F-18s.
The Harperites attacked Page as if he were a red ant going for the strawberry shortcake at the company picnic. Various cabinet ministers labelled him “incompetent,” and finance minister Jim Flaherty even stopped inviting Page to briefings in the Finance Department.
The Harper government’s battle against Page over the true costs of the F-35 became a war on two fronts after the now late-auditor general Michael Ferguson entered the high-altitude controversy.
Ferguson not only agreed that Kevin Page had it right, he concluded that, based that on DND’s own internal estimates.
And it wasn’t just an outbreak of Pinocchio Syndrome by the guys who jingle when they walk over at DND. Ferguson also claimed that the Harper cabinet would have known that the costing they were giving out publicly for the F-35s was off by $10-billion. If accurate, then both the government and one of its biggest federal departments had been willing to bamboozle Canadians over a massive public expenditure.
And it didn’t stop there. Officials in the United States were appalled by the escalating cost of the F-35—the most expensive aircraft in military history. Frank Kendall, then the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, had this to say to ABC.com about how the U.S. military had acquired the F-35.
“Putting the F-35 in production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice, okay? It should not have been done.”
It was also acquisition malpractice for DND and the Harper government to “buy before you fly,” or desperately try to. That’s because producing and testing the jet “concurrently” instead of “sequentially” hugely increased the costs. The fiscally “responsible” Tories couldn’t have given a flying fuddle-duddle. They just wanted their hot wings.
The full life-cycle cost of operating and supporting a reduced U.S. fleet of 2,457 F-35s has been estimated at $1.5-trillion, a sum reported in Foreign Policy Magazine. That is greater than the GDP of Spain.
So all the nonsense associated with this star-crossed aircraft—the sole sourcing, the astronomical price, the dubious manufacturing model, the grotesque maintenance costs, the lack of a contract with a real price, and the political mendacity all came to a grinding halt with Justin Trudeau’s pledge during the 2015 election: Canada wouldn’t be buying the F-35.
Well, actually, no.
Although the Liberals kept the promise to hold an open competition to replace the F-18s, the first sign that Trudeau had gone wobbly on his rejection of the F-35 began just two months after winning the 2015 election. Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s defence minister, refused to confirm that Lockheed Martin’s F-35 would be excluded from a competition to replace the country’s aging fleet of military aircraft.
No matter how long those words toss in the spin cycle, they can’t talk away a fundamental contradiction. The PM had said no to buying the F-35 during the election, and now the minister of defence was saying not so fast. So here’s the question? What is the point of including the F-35 in the competition, if the government has already committed to not buying it?
Long after Harjit Sajjan backed off Trudeau’s promise to dump the F-35 as the replacement jet for the F-18s, there was another sign that the Liberals are getting ready to flip-flop on this odoriferous file. There was a time when the main task for Canada’s new fleet of jets was to patrol Canada’s vast airspace and meet our NORAD commitments.
The F-35 is not ideal for those tasks, given that it is a single engine aircraft, has cold-weather operational problems, and costs so much more than alternative aircraft like the Super Hornet, Typhoon, or Gripen.
But with a stroke of the specifications pen, it appears that the F-35 is back in the hunt for the Canadian contract. Defence reporter David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen writes that a draft form of the new procurement specifications will “add additional weight to aircraft that excel at ground attacks for overseas operations.”
That capability is in the F-35’s wheel house. It also raises profound political questions for the Trudeau government. Do we want to patrol our own territory, or do we want to become the Canadian air-wing of U.S. military operations abroad?
Before the Liberal government tries to sneak in the back door what could never enter through the front one, it should consider a 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office in the U.S. Out of the F-35’s 913 deficiencies noted, 64 were “open category 1” problems.
Defense News reports that one of the problems the F-35 experiences has to do with weather: “In very cold conditions – defined as at or near minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the F-35 will erroneously report that one of its batteries has failed, sometimes prompting missions to be aborted.”
Not exactly your Arctic reconnaissance dream plane.
After a term in office, it would be ludicrous to say that Justin Trudeau has been a disaster. There have been some solid accomplishments like the assisted dying legislation, and at least a rhetorical nod to environmental issues.
But he has hurt his image and his credibility with broken promises and flip flops on some of the big stuff. As the Tory attack ads already that popped up during the Raptors game against Golden State, Trudeau didn’t balance the budget and “lied” about his pledge to bring in electoral reform.
The PM doesn’t need to add a backflip on the F-35 to his dubious record on saying one thing and doing another.
Michael Harris is an award-winning journalist and author.
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