Facing the harsh realities of governing

GEORGE PETROLEKAS  –  May 30, 2016

Isn't it amazing what happens when parties come into power? 

Headline-grabbing positions held in the rhetorical cauldron of election campaigns are routinely cast aside when the realities of governing, the exposure to new information, and actually producing results are considered.

Take for example the next generation fighter aircraft.

In the election, the Liberal position was that the F-35 would not be acquired due to its high cost. The exquisite technology was beyond Canada’s more modest requirements, we were told. Lower cost options would permit, in part, the recapitalization of the Navy (which was considered critical), while the concepts of a stealthy fighter, fully networked and interoperable, seemed (during the election at least) beyond Canada’s requirements. 

And yet, the new defence minister, during his address at the CANSEC trade show in Ottawa on 25 May, literally swept the entire election platform off the table.

First, the F35 has come down in cost to something approximating $85 million per aircraft, according to the USAF project office. That price puts it into the same budgetary envelope as other potential fighter choices for Canada. Clearly, adopting another fighter will not produce the savings once assumed to exist.

Second, the question of whether to be stealthy or not stealthy never came up. Perhaps the minister and his government have grown to understand that decreasing the electronic signature of an aircraft is the predominant trend in military aviation. Stealth does not imply a role, it is a characteristic that leads to survivability. Comparatively, we would no longer send troops to fight in scarlet uniforms, as in days of old, we expect that they be camouflaged, whether for sand, snow or forest. Reduced electronic signature is nothing more than electronic camouflage.

Thirdly, it appeared that the Minister had embraced the fact that replacing the fighter aircraft had now emerged as his top priority. The Navy does need refuelling capability, but the bulk of the fleet, the frigates, have just undergone a major life extension project which gives the government some breathing room, and the Arctic offshore vessels are at least being built now. The fighter however is a different story.

Introduced to service in the early 1980s (during Pierre Trudeau’s Prime Ministership – eight Prime Minister’s ago!), the CF18 was only intended to fly for 20 years. It is now approaching 40 years of service. It is only flying due to careful husbandry of hours flown, and particular care in avoiding high stress (high G) manoeuvres. Notwithstanding all the care and attention to how they are used, their useful life is quickly running out.

In his remarks, Minister Sajjan, never mentioned the F-35, perhaps implying that, to truly have an open and transparent competition, the F-35 must be on the short list that Canada will evaluate. Interestingly, the Minister iterated and re-iterated that the next aircraft must be fully interoperable with our key ally, the United States, in the context of our bi-national NORAD commitment.

That language would seem to indicate a preference for either the F-35 or the CF-18.

In making the final choice, it would make sense to acquire an aircraft at the very beginning of its service and design life rather than an aircraft approaching the end of its production. Especially now that technology and future interoperability no longer come at an increased cost.

If only we had not frittered away so much time in a debate that served little purpose except political differentiation.

George Petrolakas