canadas defence budget the skys the limit

The Canadian government has committed itself to spend an estimated $16 billion on 65 new state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighter jets, to be purchased from the American arms giant, Lockheed Martin. Picture $16 billion.

The Canadian government has committed itself to spend an estimated $16 billion on 65 new state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighter jets, to be purchased from the American arms giant, Lockheed Martin.

Picture $16 billion. Picture it in loonies, say, stacked up in piles of 10. A hundred stacks of 10 makes a thousand bucks. Group those together, a thousand stacks of them. That’s a million. Now picture 16,000 groups like that. I know, it’s impossible. It won’t all fit in your field of vision.

Let’s just say it’s a hell of a lot of money. Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh objects to the expenditure, not because he sees no need for the jets, but because the Conservatives sole-sourced the purchase without letting Airbus, just for instance, offer us a price. Maybe, the Liberals seem to say, we could have got a better deal.

Maybe so. Sixty-five stealth fighters would still cost more money than you or I could easily imagine. The Liberals have to be careful how they go about criticizing this purchase, since it was the Martin government that initially committed Canada to a development partnership in the F-35, spending millions to secure parts and maintenance contracts for Canadian firms, if and when we decided to buy the finished product.

Do these people know something they’re not telling us? Who is the mighty foe against whom Canada expects to defend itself in air-to-air battles? Is it Russia? China? The US? Less than a month has passed since Stephen Harper hosted a G8 summit, in which we played host to all of the nations that could conceivably launch an air strike against us. Most were partners in the development of the F35.

The questions arises, what is the point in a billion-dollar get-together between the leaders of the world’s major trading nations if they can’t agree not to attack each other with stealth fighter jets? Did the subject even come up? If so, did the leaders squabble over it, or did they simply agree to keep up the arms race, because it’s good for profits?

So far, no one has come forward to explain what future military needs the F-35s are intended to serve. Does Canada feel threatened by the ever-growing Chinese war machine? If so, I wonder if our leaders have considered putting a moratorium on supplying the dreaded foe with oil and metals? Or is there a poverty-stricken developing nation somewhere with a budding terrorist movement and a scattering of villages that need to be destroyed, in stealth?

If you find it impossible to imagine $16 billion in one pile, try this. Imagine a national daycare program. Imagine clean drinking water in First Nation communities across the country. Imagine light rail transit. Imagine that Canada lives up to its aid commitments to developing countries. Imagine affordable post-secondary education, or a national PTSD program for Canadian war veterans.

Cancelling the F-35 contract may not open up enough cash to meet all of these needs, but it could be a very large drop in each of those buckets, or it could fill just about any one of them to the brim. There are thousands of peaceful projects that cry out for attention, any one of which could benefit from a billion or so, but these are tight times. We have a huge deficit to conquer, a national debt that won’t go away, there’s only so much money to spend on public health and education, on support for the arts, on public infrastructure.

On the other hand, when it comes to the machinery of war, it appears the sky is no limit at all.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.