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Jeffrey Simpson

There'll be no stealth in touting the F-35 Add to ...

Canadians, get ready for a creeping barrage of announcements from the Harper government.

The initial shots were fired late last week when the Prime Minister showed up at a Montreal aerospace firm to announce a contract linked to the F-35 fighter purchase. There, he lambasted the Liberals, warning that if they were elected, the jet contract would be cancelled and thousands of jobs imperilled.

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That announcement was the first of what will be a relentless barrage, designed to spread good cheer all across the country and augment the government's central political message of returning prosperity.

The barrage will come courtesy of $5.6-billion in contracts that the government believes Canadian companies have secured with Lockheed for the F-35 stealth fighter jet that the Harper government has committed Canada to purchase.

The publicized cost for the 65 fighters is $9-billion with another $7-billion for maintenance, although anyone who believes those numbers gives new meaning to the word gullible. Why? Because Canada will need more than 65 aircraft, given inevitable attrition, and because when was the last time a brand new weapons system came in on time and on budget?

Already one version of the F-35 - not the one Canada is purchasing - is so far behind schedule and over budget that the U.S. Secretary of Defence has threatened to cancel it.

There is already grave doubt that the U.S. military will get the 2,500 F-35 fighters it wants, given the crushing U.S. fiscal deficit. A bipartisan budget commission recently recommended scrapping the version that is already behind schedule and over budget. If the number of F-35s is reduced, the per-plane cost will rise in the United States and in the other eight countries, including Canada, that were developing the plane.

The supposed overall budget for the F-35 is a staggering $382-billion, the largest military contract in the United States by far. To cut costs, among other reasons, the United States invited other countries to work on development, and agreed that their companies could bid on contracts for the entire fleet, not just planes sold in a particular country.

Canadian companies, therefore, that got contracts would make parts for a huge number of planes, not just the ones purchased by Canada. That's where the government believes $5.6-billion in contracts have been secured, and it has the list of those contracts and companies right now.

From the first seconds following the government's decision last summer, the purchase was largely justified to the public for the industrial benefits it would bring. Ministerial photo ops were held in various Canadian cities highlighting the industrial benefits.

The question politically therefore is when, how and where to unleash the barrage of announcements about those benefits, a public relations campaign of shock and awe designed to silence critics of the purchase. The campaign will also be designed to make the Liberals, who want a competition for a new fighter rather than the sole-sourced Lockheed plane, appear to be standing in the way of jobs, jobs and more jobs all across Canada, but especially in Quebec, where lots of aerospace companies are located. (The "peace-loving" Bloc Québécois enthusiastically supports the F-35 for just that reason.)

The barrage's timing may be linked to an election. Announcements in the lead up to a budget may help put certain voters in a kindly mood, especially those in areas getting the jet-fighter jobs. Or, some of the announcements could come during that campaign, underscoring the difference between the Conservatives and Liberals.

The Liberals are asking for a competition, while avoiding the deeper question of whether Canada needs this stealth jet fighter at all. The F-35 is the best fighter around, a so-called "fifth generation" weapon because of its stealth technology. If Canada really wants a stealth fighter jet for any and all purposes, the country should buy this one, but include a whopping inflation factor for cost escalation and more planes.

Buying the F-35 means, of course, dollars that can't be spent elsewhere in the military just when the good times are ending for military budget increases. The navy and the army both need new kit. Some of that kit can't be bought if Canada spends $17-billion on these fighters whose use will be extremely limited.

Alas, no serious debate has occurred about whether, given these restraints, Canada needs this plane. (We certainly don't need it, as the Harper spin machine suggested, to scare off Russian propeller-driven bombers.) We would need it mostly for projecting air power overseas in NATO or UN missions, to which Canada alternatively could contribute with other weapons and equipment.

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