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Minister of Industry Tony Clement gives the thumbs up as he sits in the cockpit of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter following an announcement in Ottawa, Friday July 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Minister of Industry Tony Clement gives the thumbs up as he sits in the cockpit of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter following an announcement in Ottawa, Friday July 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe Editorial

F-35 fighters are the price of sovereignty Add to ...

Fighter jets do not come cheap. On Friday, Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay announced that Canada plans to spend $9-billion on 65 Joint Strike Fighter F-35s to replace our current fleet of aging CF-18s. Add in maintenance costs, and the total sum will likely rise to $16-billion. And yet we must remember that sovereignty does not come cheap either.

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With the world's second-largest land mass and longest coast line - much of it forbiddingly remote - Canada is a very difficult country to patrol, whether by land, sea or air. It is therefore vital that our Armed Forces be given the most modern means available to protect our territory. When the CF-18 was originally selected in 1980, it represented the cutting edge of fighter jet technology. It makes sense to replace it with equivalent 21st-century capabilities.

Some critics argue that expensive fighter jets are an anachronism and that the money would be better spent on slower planes or other priorities. Regardless of current tactics or fashion, however, the ability to send a Canadian military presence anywhere in the country within minutes remains a vital ability.

And as fifth-generation partial-stealth fighters, all F-35s have the unique ability to share data and communicate with each other. This will be a significant benefit in overseas operations, considering that many of our most important allies, including the United States, Britain and Australia, are also adopting the F-35.

Despite the desirability of the new jets, the purchase has quickly become a political issue. Federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has vowed to put the entire purchase on hold, citing contract concerns over a sole-source supplier. Such obstreperousness may play well in the short run but ultimately threatens a disservice to the country.

Mr. Ignatieff no doubt recalls that his predecessor Jean Chrétien made much political hay during the 1993 election by characterizing the Mulroney government's $4.8-billion contract for EH-101 helicopters as a "Cadillac" deal. While this may have been a winning election strategy, the subsequent cancellation of this deal cost Canadian taxpayers $500-million in penalties and delayed a very necessary purchase. Seventeen years later, we're still waiting for those replacement helicopters.

Of course every government purchase requires appropriate scrutiny, and military procurement is no exception. But Canada has been a member of the F-35 project since its inception in 1997. It was the Chrétien government that took part in the original international competition in 2001 that selected Lockheed Martin as lead contractor. To argue that Canada should turn its back on this process now ignores all the due diligence performed to date. And risks another embarrassing delay in establishing Canada's sovereignty over its own air space.

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