Does Canada need to spend $16 billion on new fighter jets?
It won’t break the bank in a world where the federal government spends almost $300 billion per year, but it’s still a lot of money.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike fighters will cost $9 billion for 65 planes, according to recent federal government announcements, plus another $7 billion over the years for maintenance. They will replace Canada’s obsolescent CF-18 Hornets, whose airframes will be about four decades old when their replacements arrive.
To put this in perspective, the last federal budget announced $8 billion on infrastructure as part of the stimulus package. The total new stimulus across the country was a mere $19 billion.
So Ottawa will be stimulating Lockheed Martin’s bank account by about what it spent stimulating half the country.
The $9-billion upfront cost would cover two years of Canadian aid to poor countries, or three or four years of handouts to the three territories.
There has been a lot of criticism that the government is sole-sourcing the contract to Lockheed Martin, which as a big global arms company is hardly popular.
But the real question is whether we need the jets at all.
The F-35 is an impressive aircraft, with a menacing array of the latest missiles, bombs and cluster munitions and advanced electronics to get them to target, whether that target is a tank, building or an enemy fighter.
But it’s hard to picture a scenario when Canada will need this kind of cutting-edge, high-performance aircraft.
Who would we use it against? With the Soviet Union gone, we aren’t defending Europe any more. The Russians aren’t a threat. The Russians occasionally attempt to relive old glories by sending bombers on reconnaissance missions into Canadian airspace in the Arctic, but is having the ability to shadow them worth $9 billion? And if there is a war with China in the next 20 years, say over Taiwan, it’s not as if the Canadian air force will be in the region or that its 65 planes would make much difference.
When we send the army overseas to places like Bosnia or Afghanistan, do our troops need fighter cover? Hardly, since either the local players don’t even have an air force (the Taliban) or we are always part of a multinational effort (the first Gulf War) with allies who have their own fighters. In the former Yugoslavia, Canadian CF-18s bombed Serbian targets to persuade the regime to end its appalling campaign in Kosovo.
But that doesn’t happen very often. And if it did again, we could easily use cheaper planes or leave the bombing to our allies.
It all comes back to what our likely defence requirements are. In North America, there is probably a greater need for more maritime and Arctic patrol capability, not to mention search and rescue. And if you are the kind of person who believes Canada should be active internationally in places like Bosnia, Cyprus, Congo and Afghanistan, what missions like that really need are more light infantry with lots of helicopters and logistics support.
The Canadian army has a strong reputation for professionalism in challenging overseas missions, and we could probably help the world more by having a few more battalions of Princess Pats with lots of helicopters and bomb-proof tactical vehicles rather than 65 F-35s.
Even the Americans probably wouldn’t really be upset if Canada pulled out of the F-35 program. Undoubtedly, the US Air Force and its contractors would object, but what the administration and Pentagon are likely to really be looking for in the future are more allied boots on the ground in places like Kandahar.
The F-35 looks like a glamour purchase by generals who want to play in the big leagues.
The government should tell them to forget it, and get back to their day job of patrolling the Arctic and supporting UN missions.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s