Finally, the federal government is beginning to admit what everyone following the F-35 fighter jet file has known for a long time: The jets will cost more, likely way more, than the government has repeatedly insisted.
This emerging reality about the F-35s, and the government’s long stubborn resistance to acknowledge that reality, is part of a disturbing pattern. Faced with inconvenient facts, Stephen Harper’s government often denies them, or plows ahead in defiance of them. The F-35 contract is one example among many.
We saw this attitude on display when the government scrapped the mandatory long-form census in the face of near-unanimous opposition from experts in statistics and users of that material.
We saw it with some of the “tough on crime” measures, such as mandatory minimum sentences, which were condemned as an effective tool against crime by every judge, criminologist and prison expert, including many from the United States, where such sentences have been tried and have failed.
We continue to see it with the government’s constant repetition that Canada will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, a target no one outside the government (and civil servants within it) believes will be reached.
We saw it with the two-point reduction of the goods and services tax, a move denounced by the vast majority of economists and done in defiance of advice to all governments from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
As for the F-35s, evidence from Washington for many months has underscored the unreliability of the per-unit costs of the stealth fighter that Canada and other countries have committed to buy. Some countries have already postponed orders; others have said they will wait until more hard evidence becomes available. A recent meeting in Washington of the buyers, convened by Canada (!), has underscored the deep worries about the project.
Apart from the political issue of having said one thing and now beginning to say another, the Harper government’s problem is that 65 jets is about the minimum number required by the air force. Attrition inevitably takes its toll on aircraft, so what begins as a group that size will become smaller over time.
If the per-plane cost rises, the government could buy fewer of them, but that would risk the planes’ operational effectiveness. Alternatively, the government could pay for 65 planes at the higher per-plane cost, but that would blow the budget for a department about to experience a period of restraint as part of the government’s deficit-reduction efforts.
In addition, although it comes from another part of the department’s budget, defence has another big headache the government has tended to deny: the four disastrous diesel-electric submarines purchased years ago from Britain.
The Harper government inherited these lemons and has spent huge sums trying to make them work properly, but is now faced with another large bill to make them operational. There are those in the government and the military (not submariners, presumably) who would like to can the whole project, on the theory that no good money should be thrown after bad.
Or, these critics argue, only the bare minimum of money should be put into the four subs. They would then operate at something less than full capability while Ottawa begins planning for another submarine purchase when money becomes available.
Three versions of the F-35 are being developed. The one with the worst problems is the short-takeoff version designed for the U.S. Marines; the model Canada is supposed to buy has not been plagued by the same problems, but the per-unit cost is still going to be higher than what the government had said.
Given the size of the U.S. deficit, the Pentagon’s budget is going to be cut, and the F-35 program, the department’s most expensive weapons-procurement project, will not escape cuts. Fewer planes will mean higher per-unit costs, which is among the reasons Canada and the other would-be purchasers are nervous.
This reality has been evident for some time, no matter how many times the Harper government has denied it. Finally, ministers are beginning to fess up.