The media feeding frenzy sparked by the Auditor-General’s devastating report on the F-35 has focused on the politicians, from the Prime Minister to the Ministers of National Defence and Public Works. Rightly so. Also in the crosshairs has been the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Walter Natynczyk, with many journalists calling for his head.
But what we need to understand first is why the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces wanted the F-35 and, second, how that decision made its way through the department to the cabinet.
The Canadian Forces has the duty of planning for an unknowable future. Equipment is evaluated and ordered only after long internal processes, ordinarily to come into service five or 10 or 15 years in the future. The costs are enormous, in part because modern kit is expensive, but also because the accounting system now in place includes the costs for maintenance and spares for the life of the equipment.
For the F-35, the Air Force necessarily had to consider the roles the aircraft might play. Canada must protect its sovereignty, and the F-35 could do that. We might be involved in coalition air operations, and the F-35 could fill that role, both as a strike aircraft and as an interceptor. Its stealth technology – and a host of additional high-tech wonders – make it potentially the best fighter available anywhere for the next quarter-century, and that explains why so many countries want to purchase it. The aircraft is still in development and it has its bugs, no doubt about that. But so did and does just about every other aircraft now flying and in development, and many (the Sikorsky Cyclone helicopter, e.g.) that aren’t anywhere near as technologically advanced.
Some critics object to a strike capability for the RCAF. The fundamental point, however, is that we cannot see into the future, and we do not know what challenges we might face. Who foresaw Canadian fighters participating in Kosovo a dozen years ago? Who anticipated the Libyan campaign? Who knows what might occur in 2025 and what resources we will need? There is no threat to Canadian airspace today. But tomorrow? There is no air campaign in prospect this month, but 20 years hence? An aircraft that can do sovereignty patrols, first strike and air combat can cover most of the bases, and it is the task of the Canadian Forces to be as prepared for the unknowable as it can be.
I am no expert on airframes, engines, flight characteristics and armaments. Neither are the members of cabinet. They rely on the experts in the RCAF for that, and properly so. Some think the selection process was not kosher, but it was conducted with Canada as part of a consortium of NATO partners who aimed to maximize economies of scale in development and production and to ensure interoperability. Thus, only the F-35 met the criteria that the RCAF believed essential for the future. Too many non-experts have carped at this judgment, but there are very few airmen against the F-35. It really isn’t about shiny new toys for the boys.
Then let us look at the decision-making process in the Department of National Defence. Almost all the commentary in the media and Parliament has pointed fingers at the CDS, Gen. Natynzcyk. But he is only the military leader of the department, not the sole ruler. Co-equal to him – and, in fact, in most knowledgeable observers’ judgment substantially more than that – is the deputy minister, Robert Fonberg, in his post since 2007. The associate deputy minister materiel, responsible for all procurement projects, reports to Mr. Fonberg, and the deputy determines what his minister, Peter MacKay, and eventually the cabinet sees. The public messaging in the department is handled by the assistant deputy minister (public affairs), who also reports to Mr. Fonberg. The civilian defence bureaucrats truly wield the power.
The point is this: The uniformed officers of the department provide the best military advice they can. Sometimes they are incorrect; most times they pray they are right because they know their decisions will affect their comrades’ lives. But the estimates of costs, and the spin that has so exercised the Auditor-General, the media and the Opposition, are shaped and massaged by the deputy minister, in effect DND’s chief financial officer, who advises the minister of national defence.
No one comes out of the F-35 affair smelling like a rose. Mr. MacKay undoubtedly made mistakes in overselling the aircraft, and Gen. Natynzcyk likely did as well. But it would be a miscarriage of justice if these two lost their heads to the vengeful axe demanded by an aroused media, and the deputy minister and his civilian bureaucrats escaped unscathed.
Historian J.L. Granatstein is the author of The Ottawa Men: The Civil Service Mandarins.