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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Selling the F-35: In for a penny, in for a pound Add to ...

“In for a penny, in for a pound” is an old saying that offers one of many explanations for the Harper government’s problems with the F-35 fighter jet.

This week, the Auditor-General methodically recounted internal failings with the jet-purchase program, as in the Department of National Defence’s not properly consulting other departments, not providing complete information to ministers (a charge the department denies), and framing a possible competition for the country’s new fighter in such a way that only the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II could win.

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Fine, but there were other factors, some of them inherent in Canadian governments, that produced this state of affairs such that a senior official now admits the Harper government is pushing the “reset button” on a project it muscularly defended for years, dismissing critics as unpatriotic and ill-informed.

All those robust assertions about the 65 fighters costing $9-billion from the Prime Minister, his defence ministers (Gordon O’Connor and Peter MacKay) and parliamentary secretary Laurie Hawn (a former pilot) have turned out to be wrong. What they’ll cost, how many the government can actually afford to buy and whether the government will push the “eject” rather than the “reset” button are all fair questions today.

Canada has already committed $710-million to the Joint Strike Fighter program headquartered, directed, planned and largely financed in the United States. The Canadian commitment began in 1997 to get in on the ground floor with other partners in developing a new generation fighter that would have all the latest and best technology, including stealth shielding.

That’s when the “in for a penny, in for a pound” began. With each new phase, Canada put in more money, time and energy, it being clear that National Defence wanted the F-35 and nothing else.

Here’s where Ottawa’s context for defence procurement becomes relevant, even decisive – a context beyond what the Auditor-General described.

Around the cabinet table in any government sit ministers who know squat about weaponry, or broader defence questions, for that matter. If a minister does know something, then he’s likely to have been in the military and, as such, reveres men and women in uniform. The ex-military man in the cabinet is usually a booster.

What ministers care about in any major procurement project is where the jobs will be, not whether the weapon is the right one or whether it fits Canada’s geopolitical role.

That’s why the Harper government spent so much public-relations time announcing contracts, real or possible, at photo ops around the country. The F-35 was being “sold” to Canadians less as a needed weapons system than as the biggest, best and most lucrative industrial project on offer.

The prospect of contracts locked the aerospace industries into the F-35. Also locked in were the lobby groups for the defence industries and press commentators who’ve never seen an enlarged defence budget they didn’t praise. To raise questions about the F-35, even after cracks were being revealed in its putative capabilities and budgetary estimates, was to be pacifistic, unpatriotic, unknowing, anti-military, anti-job creation.

National Defence prefers to be the junior arm of the Pentagon in purchasing, deployment and strategy. The Canadian military wants not just “inter-operability” of equipment, it always prefers the newest and shiniest technology around, if the government’s budget permits. The technology usually turns out to be American, since the U.S. defence budget is greater than that of the next 15 countries combined.

Once the Canadian military bought (literally and psychologically) into the F-35, nothing was going to stop it from getting that plane. It would keep other departments out of the loop, easily overwhelm helpless and ill-informed ministers, and encourage allies in the press and industry to pitch the case. And it had a government gung-ho on the military in all its manifestations.

The only problem with this strategy was, and is, the F-35 – or rather, the constant revision of plans and budget for a plane still being developed.

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