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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Just what we need: a $16-billion fighter jet Add to ...

The Harper government is supposed to announce plans on Friday to spend $16-billion - yes, $16-billion! - for a plane Canada doesn't need.

For more than a decade, the Department of National Defence has been involved with a handful of other countries and, of course, the Pentagon in developing the F-35 Lightning II, a single-seat, single-engine, stealth fighter whose roles would include close-air support for ground troops, tactical bombing and air-to-air combat.

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The United States will purchase 2,443 of these planes at a cost of $323-billion, the largest defence program ever. The Harper government will buy 65 jets at a cost of $9-billion, with another $7-billion over the next 20 years for maintenance.

Liberals criticize sole-sourcing of the fighter. But this criticism misses the point: Canada doesn't need this fighter at all, and would be better off spending some of this $16-billion on other defence needs.

We need defence capabilities to defend this country's sovereignty. We need it to aid the civil power. And we need it to pursue Canada's interests and values, in conjunction with allies, in troubled parts of the world. The F-35 might be nice to have in the best of all worlds, with unlimited budgets, but it doesn't fit with Canada's basic defence needs.

Defence of the realm mostly requires a robust naval capacity, which Canada lacks, and air-patrol capabilities, especially for the Arctic and coastlines, not fighter jets. Do we seriously believe the Russians or someone else are going to launch some kind of air attack against Canada such that we need fighters? If you think so, then go ahead and buy the planes. Otherwise, save the money.

Fighters, of course, are useless in fulfilling the second defence mandate: aid to the civil power. But what about the third: fighting in other parts of the world, as Canada has been doing in Afghanistan?

Almost every analysis of the world security situation predicts conflict in failed states, ethnically riven ones or Islamic terrorist havens (and the three sometimes go together).

Canada might well decide to involve itself in such messy situations, as it has been in the past (the Balkans) and is now in Afghanistan. In these sorts of conflicts, sophisticated fighter jets are of limited utility. Air strikes in Afghanistan have so riled up the locals because of the numbers of innocent people killed that the U.S. military has scaled them back. Predator drones or long-distance missiles are now the weapons of choice for striking terrorists from the air.

Fighter aircraft are extremely useful in pitched battles, but the nature of modern conflict that would involve Canada is not likely to be of that kind. They also can provide good cover for aircraft carriers, of which Canada has none. More heavily armoured planes would be better suited to support infantry.

More needed than these fighters are long-range transport and patrol aircraft, new helicopters, light armoured vehicles, ships and ice-breaking vessels for the Far North, not to mention equipment for the ordinary soldier.

The Americans, of course, would like us to buy what is essentially their aircraft, although allies such as Britain, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands and Norway contributed about a tenth of the development costs. Canada's defence planners would obviously like the F-35 for reasons of "interoperability," and because they love new equipment.

The Americans really care more that allies pick up their fair share of defence spending overall, knowing that a country such as Canada cannot do all things. It would satisfy the Americans to know that Canada is better equipping itself for the defence of its realm - because our realm is part of North America - and for occasional foreign missions.

The F-35 announcement will be garlanded, as defence procurement announcements always are, with all the contracts to be given Canadian companies. From the start, the defence-production industry in Canada pushed hard for the country's inclusion in the F-35 project so as to win contracts.

But contracts would be available if Canada makes other, wiser choices about military equipment. Sixty-five undoubtedly splendid fighter jets don't amount to defence wisdom, but rather an expensive, wrong choice.

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