The moose in the F 35 fighter jets’ room

The controversy of Canada's possible multi-billion dollar purchase of F-35 fighters has mostly been about the government's procurement process and whether the cabinet has been honest about the true costs of the F-35s over the jets' full lifetime.

The controversy of Canada’s possible multi-billion dollar purchase of F-35 fighters has mostly been about the government’s procurement process and whether the cabinet has been honest about the true costs of the F-35s over the jets’ full lifetime.

Important issues, but what has been remarkable is how hard all of our political parties have been trying to avoid talking about the proverbial moose in the room: who would we possibly use F-35s against? Not to mention what buying F-35s means about our defence relationship with the United States.

In fact, attempts to avoid these issues have led to the remarkable situation where our politicians are actually debating the merits of different economic analysis techniques. When purchasing jet fighters or other important assets, is it best to look at the purchase price? Or the total costs over the life of the asset? Or just the incremental costs of the new asset over the cheaper asset you are running now?

As fascinating as these topics are to the inmates of cost accounting 200 classes, let’s talk about why we would actually need F-35s. If the F-35 lives up to its billing, which we won’t know for a few years, it will be a hot plane. It will be a so-called “fifth-generation” fighter; stealthy, with extremely advanced electronics and weaponry. The plan is that it will be capable of holding its own with any fighter in the world, or penetrating pretty much anybody’s air defences to deliver missiles or bombs.

But it will also be extremely expensive. And complex world-beating defence systems can now take a decade or more to develop. The Pentagon began the joint strike fighter program that has produced the F-35 in 1996. Long gone are the days when the British could order the new Spitfire in 1936 and have enough in the air to defend the country when the Germans attacked in 1940.

So we are talking about a defence decision we will have to live with for decades. Big things can happen over a period this long – less than 25 years ago the Cold War was still on. So what might happen in the next 10 or 20 years where we would need F-35s instead of, say, cheaper Boeing Super-Hornets?

The moose in the room is, of course, China. There might be other situations like bombing Bosnia or Libya in the future, where having the most advanced fighter would be handy. But if we don’t have the right planes, we can always rely on our allies, as we have done in the past, in various embarrassing episodes, where our air force’s radios or other gadgets weren’t good enough.

According to the Economist, China has been growing defence spending at 12 per cent a year for the past decade. That’s a doubling every six years. If that continues, it will be the world’s biggest military spender within 20 years. It is developing advanced new generations of aircraft carriers, its own F-35 equivalent, nuclear submarines, Arctic icebreakers, space weapons and ballistic missiles to sink American aircraft carriers.

China says it is a peaceful nation, simply taking a place in the world commensurate with its size and wealth. Realists in Asia-Pacific defence ministries, however, must think about the future. What happens in a decade if there is a different regime in charge in Beijing? What if a minor dispute with Taiwan or a disputed maritime boundary gets out of control?

Presumably this is what the big brains in Ottawa are thinking about as they push ahead with Canadian plans for the F-35. If things get out of hand with China, and our air force is flying the 21st-century equivalent of biplanes, then we will be totally dependent on the American air force.

Which brings up the really sensitive topic for Canadians. It is inconceivable that Canadian F-35s would be dogfighting with Chinese J-20s without the Americans being involved. So what we are really talking about is Canada’s contribution to our alliance. Should we buy F-35s, which will fight in alliance with American F-35s (and lower the per unit costs for the Americans’ own purchases) or leave the dogfights to them and spend our money on the army, navy or Arctic search and rescue? Or not spend the money at all, and leave the Americans, Japanese and South Koreans to worry about the Chinese air force?

A similar controversy occurred in Canada before the First World War, when Germany was rapidly building up its navy. In those days, the big-ticket super-weapons were dreadnought battleships. At the time, the choices were to give money to the Royal Navy to buy more dreadnoughts (as New Zealand did), to build our own and have it fight as part of the Imperial fleet (as Australia did) or to start our own navy. Prime minister Robert Borden proposed the Australian option, but the Liberal senate voted down the bill and we ended up spending nothing on big battleships. Instead we built a small navy and, when the war started, a big army.

In the end, it is a footnote of history if the F-35s cost $14 billion or $25 billion. The really big question is whether we need them at all, and what risks we will be running in 15 years if we don’t have them. And that is what I would like to hear more about from our politicians.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.