Hudson on the Hill

From the Tower: Joint Strike Fighter
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Jan 15, 2011

Parliamentarians have returned to the Hill, and talk of an election is once again in the air. In such a climate, acute partisanship tends to ignore ­complexity while it revels in simplistic rhetoric.

One of the hottest topics is the fifth generation replacement for Canada’s CF-18 fighter aircraft. The Opposition argues that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is too expensive and suggests we can do better, but only if we open competitive bidding for an equivalent replacement. If we cannot have a competitive bidding process, then we may as well cancel the project. And why do we need such an expensive and sophisticated aircraft anyway?

Defence Minister Peter MacKay had the answer last July, when he announced the purchase of 65 of the new jets. He said, “This aircraft is the best that we can provide our men and women in uniform, and this government is committed to giving them the very best.”

The Government points out that there was a competition about a decade ago, under a Liberal government, which decided to go with the F-35. The Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary, Pierre Poilievre recently added, “[Liberal] ads target the purchase of aircraft which are required not only to defend our country but also to create jobs in our aerospace sector.” It seems that’s as good as the argument gets. There’s got to be more to it than that.

In engaging the Liberals at their own level, on a battlefield of their own choosing, government ignores the opportunity to engage parliamentarians and Canadians in a mature discussion of Canadian defence policy. Surely any government worth its salt can justify such a major expenditure as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by describing the comprehensive and philosophically sound defence policy that demands such a capability. Such arguments are available, but we haven’t heard them yet.

The problem is, the ongoing criticism of the government’s intent to purchase the Joint Strike Fighter is not really a defence debate. At best, it is a financial debate, if affordability is the issue. When critics begin to call for the cancellation of the project, intelligent discussion becomes mere politicking. If procurement of the F-35 is seen in a defence policy context, it becomes much more clear that it is the right aircraft for Canada.

If parliamentarians were interested in a real debate on defence policy, they might realize that the future defence of Canada (see Canada First Defence Strategy) will depend, in large part, on dominating our airspace, not simply controlling or ‘defending’ it. The policy issue is therefore Canadian possession of a future dominant aircraft, not simply an upgrade of today’s model, or any other new model not equal to the F-35.

Moreover, Canadian pilots will be cooperating with U.S. air forces in the defence of the North American continental airspace, within the bi-national NORAD aerospace defence framework. The strategic advantage of a common, North American-based aircraft and production and sustainment complex must be obvious to those who think seriously about continental defence policy and strategy.

There is another dimension. Some parliamentarians seem to think that simply showing up in a battle, in equipment that is ‘good enough’ is an acceptable goal. However, whether it is a fighter aircraft, a tank, a ‘big honkin’ ship’ or a mine-resistant infantry vehicle, the men and women of the Canadian Forces do not intend simply to ‘show up.’ They go into a fight to win. It is not intended to be a fair fight. They want to dominate an enemy. This demands the best equipment available, not equipment that was ‘good enough’ when it was contracted.

Government and parliament have a duty to ensure they have given the men and women of the Canadian Forces the best equipment to succeed in the missions assigned to them. Anything less is a moral failing.

In effect, this means there are circumstances when competition should not be the preferred approach. Particularly when acquiring a major, sophisticated piece of equipment that is required to dominate an adversary in the future. Government should acquire the best available, not the cheapest. The product should come from the world’s leader, not the lowest bidder.

Concern for a competitive acquisition process can be fiscally and commercially admirable, but it has no place in a defence policy debate. Competitive acquisition is best placed in subsequent discussions of strategy, when resource allocations are being considered. Even then, competitive acquisition should not be a driving factor that overrides policy and high-strategy intentions. Competitive procurement is a means, not an end.

Now, to be fair, overall affordability of any piece of equipment is a legitimate issue for government and parliament. It is government’s prerogative – and parliament’s right – to insist that whatever capability is acquired (and it is important to understand that capability is more than just a piece of equipment), can be afforded by the national purse. Therefore decisions regarding such things as quantities, procurement timelines, commitment to operations and the like are all legitimately government’s to make, and parliament can legitimately hold government to account for such decisions.

One can only hope that parliament will start to discuss the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in its proper context – defence policy, rather than allow the schoolyard arguments to continue in their present form. But then again, talk of an election is in the air. Serious debate on anything will likely be in short supply.

Hudson on The Hill
© Frontline Defence 2011