Friday, November 18, 2011

Fighter jet getting tougher to defend

Even Stephen Harper's detractors will acknowledge - after a few libations and with no microphones in view - that the prime minister has generally shown a deft hand in foreign affairs. Indeed, along with economic management, this has become one of Harper's greatest strengths.

So why, some in and around Ottawa wonder, is the Harper government so dead-set on championing the much-delayed, expensive and controversial F-35 fighter purchase, even as the project takes on ever more ballast?

Day after day in the House of Commons, opposition MPs pose pointed, scathing questions about why the government has "sole-sourced" this estimated $16-billion (including maintenance costs) purchase from U.S. aircraft maker Lockheed Martin, with no competitive tender. Day after day a trio of ministers - up to and including the prime minister himself - deliver wan responses, looking unhappy as they do so.

Polls have shown that a majority of Canadians doubt whether ultrahigh-tech new fighters should be a priority. The government's three stock arguments in their defence - it was the Liberals who launched the program in the late 1990s, our pilots deserve the best, and the industrial spinoffs will be huge - look weak in an era of looming budget cuts.

International support for the joint strike fighter has gone wobbly. The Turks are out, because of a disagreement over rights to the F-35's critically important software source code. Australia is buying Boeing's Super Hornets. Norway has delayed its pur-

chase. The British are reviewing their purchase of more than 100 F-35B models - the Joint Strike Fighter's vertical-landing variant. And there are rumblings the Italians may soon do the same, if they can order any planes at all, given their debt woes.

As if all that weren't bad enough, the U.S. military - on the hook for 2,443 F-35s, at an estimated cost of $380 billion US - is under siege because of America's own debt crisis. There is rampant speculation the Pentagon itself will soon be forced to curtail its order. Because pricing is based on economies of scale, that would change the game for every other member of the consortium, including Canada. As orders get reduced, the price per plane goes up.

Therefore, why so dogged? Here's a partial answer. The growing turmoil, itself, is one reason why the Harper government remains grimly at the table. In a global system increasingly reliant on multilateral co-operation, and in which Ottawa is now deemed by its friends to be a reliable ally, the prime minister doesn't want to be seen to welch on a big deal. The Prime Minister's Office is keenly aware that a review by Canada could have a domino effect on other F-35 consortium members.

"When we've given our word (internationally) you can count on it," said a source familiar with the government's thinking. "A number of good deeds would quickly be forgotten if you took out a significant (commitment) like this."

Fair enough, as far as that goes. We remember the "soft-power" years, when Canada finger-pointed shrilly from the sidelines, while gutting the military. Few Canadians would take us back there.

But here's what the PMO clearly did not bargain for: In addition to being very costly - independent estimates put the price at between $110 million and $150 million per plane, in contrast with Ottawa's $75 million figure - even the basic version of the F-35 has technical problems that will be expensive to remedy.

The slightest scratch to the stealth coating, for example, makes the plane much more visible to radar; maintenance requires the coating be removed, then later replaced; and the F-35 can't communicate in the Far North without the addition of an external pod, which would again make it un-stealthy. There are issues with takeoff and landing speeds and therefore runway length; glitches with the high-tech helmet worn by pilots; and oceans of as-yet unwritten software, years behind schedule.

And there's this: Why does Canada need what is essentially a first-strike weapon, when this country is not in the business of first strikes? Would it not make more sense for the RCAF to fly greater numbers of less advanced, cheaper, more workmanlike planes? These questions are not going away. They have yet to be satisfactorily answered by the government.

Those who say the entire F-35 project is doomed are probably off the mark: The U.S. military has bet the farm on this aircraft and now has no option but to slog ahead. This doesn't mean, however, that Canada can't and won't scrap its own buy if the Americans and Europeans recast the rules by slashing their orders.

Economic slumps worldwide make that a growing possibility now, whatever the ministers may say in the House.


Post a Comment