In a slow summer for serious political matters, the announcement that Canada will buy 65 F-35 fighter jets at a cost (including maintenance) of $16-billion has upset the opposition parties and critics of the government's defence policy. For its part, the Harper government did little to help itself by having the Defence Minister talk about how pilots like fast aircraft and that acquiring them would help recruiting. The Prime Minister's press secretary also didn't help much when he announced that, if it hadn't been for Canada's CF-18s, two Russian bombers would have invaded across the Pole. It really is the summer silly season.
But there are serious issues here. One of the basic duties of a state is the protection of its sovereignty, its territory and its people. Today's Russians aren't the Soviets of the 1960s or 70s, and the old bombers that the Russians regularly send over the Far North are likely on training flights and merely checking to see whether Canada's air force is still there. That's today. But tomorrow? Ten years hence? Simply because there's no current credible threat to our airspace doesn't mean the future is secure. Who in 1990 or 2000 could have predicted that the Canadian Forces would be fighting a war in Afghanistan in 2010?
Retired air force major-general Leonard Johnson says the F-35s were designed only to fight enemy jets. "The age of major inter-state war between developed nations has vanished," he wrote, "so why prepare for one?" He may be right, and I certainly hope he is. But what if he's wrong as everyone who confidently declared that Hitler would stop once he had reincorporated the Rhineland back into Germany. What then?
Moreover, if we don't mount sovereignty patrols in our airspace, who will? The answer is all too clear: the U.S. Air Force. Does anyone want to have American pilots flying over Canada to check out Russian bombers? Can Canada be a sovereign state if the defence of its most basic national interest is provided by another country? We will surely require some aircraft to do such patrols for the foreseeable future.
But which aircraft? Do we really need $16-billion worth of hot new fighters for this purpose? We do have the CF-18s that have been expensively refurbished to the point that these 1980s aircraft will be able to fly until 2017. Fortuitously, given our glacially slow procurement procedures, that end date is around the time the F-35s will come into service. Perhaps someone in Ottawa knows what they're doing.
The F-35s, like the CF-18s, are useful for more than sovereignty and surveillance roles. In our unknowable future, if Maj.-Gen. Johnson is wrong, Canada might again decide that its national interests will be served by co-operating with its allies in military operations. The F-35s can play a role even if we can't determine that role today. Who could have predicted that the CF-18s would serve in the Persian Gulf war or over the former Yugoslavia? Not all Canadians agreed with those missions, but governments, Conservative and Liberal alike, determined they served the nation's interests.
I don't know whether the F-35 is the best fighter for our needs. But I do know that Canada has national interests and that these will always need to be defended and advanced. I do know that Canada must always be able to undertake surveillance over its own territory and to be prepared to turn away Russian bombers on training missions today or some other nation's aircraft on more mischievous operations tomorrow. And I accept that, at some point, Canada may again decide to send its military abroad to work with our allies.
The F-35 can do the likely tasks Canada might need to undertake. It can watch over our territory, and be part of an overseas military response in the 2020s and 30s. Of course, we all hope the money spent on these aircraft turns out to have been unnecessary, so peaceful will the world be. But no one should live in the expectation of peace, not in our world of terror and aggression. If Canadians must fight, it's important they have the modern weaponry to do so. Good sense demands that Canadians plan and prepare for an unknowable future.
J.L. Granatstein is a historian and a senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.