In The Media

F-35s enter the election campaign

by Denis Calnan (feat. David Perry)

The Hill Times Online
September 29, 2015

Defence procurement is now part of the federal election campaign after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said a Liberal government would not purchase the controversial F-35 stealth fighter jets, citing costs and the jets’ abilities compared to what Canada needs from the planes.

“There is no contract right now for the F-35s,” Mr. Trudeau said last week. “We were part of the international community contributing to the development of it and got jobs through it, but we were never obliged to actually purchase the F-35s.”

He said he would instead invest the money in the Navy. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper quickly shot back at a campaign event last week, saying why the F-35s are needed. 

“I don’t know what planet they’re living on,” Mr. Harper said of the Liberals. “[Mr. Trudeau]’s merely talking about cratering our aerospace industry.”

Mr. Harper said the Canadian government, since the previous Liberal government, has “been participating, actively, financially, in the development of this particular plane.” 

He said the industry has already financially benefited significantly from the F-35 development and there are “billions of dollars of possibilities down the road.”

Harper’s defence of the F-35s surprised industry watchers because the competition to replace the aging CF-18s is supposed to still be an open competition, with no decision having been made by the government.

“Honestly, it’s been an interesting turn of events,” said Jean-Christophe Boucher, an assistant professor of political science at MacEwan University in Edmonton and a research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

“It seems like the Liberals are basically forcing the Conservatives to play their hand, when I don’t think the Conservatives wanted to,” said Prof. Boucher.

David Perry, senior analyst with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, said the Prime Miniser’s response was “confusing.”

“The Prime Minister’s either announcing that he’s taking a decision … in a certain sense, by advocating on that file, or articulating the virtues of a decision that he’s not actually taken, in terms of advocating on behalf of the benefit that could occur to Canada, which would be very substantial if we do decide to make that purchase, but this government has not decided to make that purchase,” said Mr. Perry.

In 2010, the government said it wanted 65 F-35s for an estimated $9-billion.

In a 2011 report, the Parliamentary Budget Office said the $9-billion figure would actually be closer to $29.3-billion, and a 2012 auditor general report pegged the cost at more than $25-billion. A 2012 independent review by accounting firm KPMG put the full life-cycle costs for the jets at more than $45-billion.

Canada is part of a multi-country partnership called the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which it joined in 1997. But questions have arisen about whether the plane meets Canada’s needs.

Prof. Boucher said the price keeps on fluctuating, and if manufacturing jobs are put at risk if Canada decides not to go with the F-35, there could be more manufacturing jobs created with another plane choice because the other companies vying for the contract have promised to make much of their plane parts in Canada.

“There’s a requirement for them to actually make sure that the money Canada invests in buying the planes is actually invested in Canada,” he said.

“The problem is that, in theory, the decision hasn’t been made,” reiterated Prof. Boucher. “So now we have a Prime Minister that is essentially defending a position that hasn’t been made, which is bizarre. So it begs the question on whether the government has decided already who they’re going to choose [and] they just didn’t tell anyone else.”

“I actually don’t know why the PM went that way. It’s a vote loser. It’s not something that you’re going to win votes with. You’ll face scrutiny and I don’t get it. Honestly, I think they were worried about offence and didn’t think about defence, where they wanted to attack Trudeau on his announcement but forgot to think of how that would be indicative of what they were going and doing,” said Prof. Boucher.

In the document the Liberals released, it states that there will be “an open procurement process.” That’s something NDP Leader Tom Mulcair weighed in on at a campaign event last week.

 “When [Mr. Trudeau] says things like that, he’s just showing his total lack of experience. That’s not the way these things work,” said Mr. Mulcair.

He said that Mr. Trudeau’s announcement means he’s making the decision in advance of the process being carried out, just like Mr. Harper. 

“He’s making the same mistake as Mr. Harper,” said Mr. Mulcair. “How can he decide in advance the result without a process?”

Prof. Boucher noted that Canadians don’t normally vote according to a party’s position on these issues.

“Usually people don’t vote on foreign policy issues,” he said. “Which is maybe the reason why Harper framed it as an economic issue. He knows people will vote for jobs if they don’t vote for airplanes.”

Mr. Perry noted that the Liberal policy announcement, in which the party’s rejection of the F-35s was outlined, had additional and substantial elements in it.

“The basic fundamental problem, which if you read the Liberal platform in context, that they’re trying to address, is that the overall procurement plans at National Defence don’t have enough money to make them viable,” he said.

“So unless someone’s going to start having a conversation about increasing the defence budget … you need to engage in a conversation about how you’re going to try to make the current set of plans more affordable within the existing funding line. Because right now, overall there’s tens of billions of dollars worth of gap, in funding terms, between what’s outlined and what’s planned or what can actually be purchased,” said Mr. Perry.

He said the Liberal plan is one option in how to start to address that gap.

Mr. Perry said the parties have to either commit to dedicating a lot more money to defence vehicles or talk about reallocating money to priority projects.

“The shipbuilding file is underfunded. I personally think that that should be a priority at National Defence,” said Mr. Perry.

The purchase of the F-35s played a key role in the last federal election, when the vote of non-confidence that ended the minority Parliament was triggered over the Conservatives’ being found in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide a committee with costing for the planes.

Although many industry watchers say that foreign issues are non-starters for Canadian voters, one of the remaining leaders’ debates, the Munk foreign policy-themed debate, is set to be held on Sept. 28, and some viewers are hoping to hear more about how to solve Canada’s never-ending defence procurement challenges.



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