Saturday, July 17, 2010

What Price Sovereignty, Now and Tomorrow

In a move that doubtless sent ripples of disbelief and shock across the country, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has moved ahead on the purchase of sixty-five F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters. Because, you know, a military purchase is totally out of character for a Conservative government. These sixty-five multirole fighters, the product of an international research and development project that goes back to 1993, are set to replace Canada's current fleet of CF-18 Hornet fighters, which have been the backbone of the Air Force for twenty-seven years and are likely to continue serving until the F-35s arrive, sometime around 2020.

The cost for this replacement? $9-billion up front, and maintenance over an initial twenty-year timeframe has been estimated to account for another $7-billion for $16-billion in total. In what has been perhaps the single most predictable political announcement of this season, the Opposition has come out against it. While the rhetoric of "if we win the next election we will cancel this program" has been toned down, there's still a great deal of back-and-forth about the sole-source nature of this contract. Myself, this didn't come as much of a surprise - I've known about this impending purchase for years, quite literally. Fighter programs have a hell of a long turn-around time from commencement to actual service.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that the Liberals are raising such a hue and cry over the "lack of competitive bids" in the F-35 project, whereas they were - to my recollection, at least - totally silent when Toronto awarded Bombardier more than a billion dollars for its streetcar renewal program without seriously entertaining any other companies' bids, but I guess stealth fighters are sexier than streetcars.

I'll admit that the F-35 itself appears to have potentially serious issues, the most prominent of those being that in contrast to the two-engined CF-18 Hornet, it has only one engine. Defence Minister Peter MacKay's assertion that "it won't" fail during, say, a long and isolated Arctic patrol strikes me as an equally serious issue. Look, I know that the government is all starry-eyed over these fighters, but please be realistic. Bad things happen no matter how much we don't want them to, and dismissing the possibility of a catastrophic engine failure on a single-engine aircraft out of hand does a disservice to the men and women who will be flying those aircraft, not to mention Canada's security. Nor does the assertion of an anonymous official, who claims that "the F-35 engine is newer technology so it is extremely robust," fill me with any sort of confidence. In my experience, it's the newer technology that's much more liable to break.

But what's the alternative? It's easy to say that procurements like this are relics of the Cold War and have no place in the modern world, but honestly I think that's simplifying the situation. Whether it's the F-35 or something else, we really do need a new fighter. Canada needs to maintain a modern air arm, because once the resource wars and climate wars start in earnest, we're going to need them. More importantly, we need to shoulder the burden of securing our own airspace because there's a country down south that some of you may have heard of, and which is greatly interested in its own security and that of its backyard. If we don't patrol the Arctic, I imagine the Americans will (perhaps grudgingly, but regardless) do it for us.

Delegating the security of its own airspace is generally not the mark of an independent state, and it could easily push Canada down that road.

Four F/A-18 Hornets of the Blue Angels, the United States Navy's aerial acrobatics squadron, fly low over the Toronto Islands - September 6, 2009

If you don't like it, think of it this way - the F-35 may be the last piloted airframe the Canadian Forces purchases. By 2040, at which point the F-35s will have been in service for less time than the CF-18s already have, the skies may be filled with combat UAVs. Unmanned aerial vehicles capable of performing all the missions modern piloted aircraft do, but piloted remotely from a secure location, may well be the future. Though the possible removal of humans from the aerial battlefield does present a great deal of problems, and should be considered very carefully in the years to come, it would probably at least be cheaper.

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