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Minister of National Defence and Minister for the Atlantic Gateway Peter MacKay makes an announcement infront of a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in Ottawa, Friday July 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Minister of National Defence and Minister for the Atlantic Gateway Peter MacKay makes an announcement infront of a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in Ottawa, Friday July 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Campbell Clark

Fantino executes tactical retreat on F-35 jets Add to ...

Julian Fantino has just executed a classic tactical manoeuvre: the quarter-turn retreat.

According to the junior defence minister, the Harper government is committed to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but not so much that it’s necessarily going to buy the things. Mr. Fantino’s definition of commitment would make a marriage counsellor blush.

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The history of the F-35 program has been all about alliances, however. And Canada's allies in the F-35 program are parsing Mr. Fantino's words today. They'd be annoyed if Canada jumped ship.

That’s the real calculation Stephen Harper will weigh against rising financial costs. Buying stealth fighters with allies was a signal Canada wanted a role in future overseas air-combat missions. Mr. Harper has touted pledges that Canada will have a muscular military role, using Libya as an example, and allies have noticed.

In the meantime, Mr. Fantino reached a key political objective: putting some wiggle room into Canada's decision on the costly fighters. It’s a tactical retreat.

Two years ago, the Harper government made what was supposed to be an all-out commitment to the F-35s. Peter MacKay marched into a press conference to a military band and said Canada would buy 65. It stuck to that plan for more than a year as new information on ballooning costs made Ottawa’s $75-million-per-plane cost estimate unbelievable.

Mr. Fantino has watered that down since. He’s speculated Canada might buy fewer than the 65 fighters that the military says is the “minimum acceptable fleet.” He also said the life of the existing 80 CF-18 fighters, due to be retired between 2017 and 2020, could be extended. Now he’s raised the possibility of backing out altogether.

What would allies think of Canada backing out? “They’d be upset,” a diplomat from an F-35 ally said. Another said: “If any of the partners backs out, yes, it would be an issue. We’re all kind of thinking about and looking at what Mr. Fantino said yesterday. It would be a great disappointment if they took that decision. I don’t think they’re anywhere near taking that decision yet.”

Some allies have cut orders, but a country backing out altogether makes them all nervous. It opens the door for others to follow, and fewer fighters on order could lead to spiralling costs.

In fact, Mr. Fantino’s aides insist Canada’s commitment is unchanged. That’s the beauty of the quarter-turn: It’s camouflaged with ambiguity.

But it would be political madness for the Tories to say they’ll stick to the F-35s, no matter the cost, while preparing a budget full of cuts. Delays in F-35 production mean Ottawa might delay a decision four or five years, and it might even have to spend to extend the life of the CF-18s. And Mr. Fantino’s “ifs” open wiggle room in case costs force Ottawa to back out altogether.

The $9-billion they said they’d spend was supposed to buy 65 planes and a big package of parts and accessories, with the cost of maintaining the planes perhaps twice as much. That would blow a hole in the defence budget, but now 65 planes are likely to cost a lot more than $9-billion. Mr. Harper insisted Wednesday he is “prepared to live within that budget.”

But his government is still stuck as long as it insists on stealth fighters, because there isn’t another one available.

The nine allies banded together in the 1990s under U.S. leadership to develop an all-purpose stealth fighter-bomber and hand the work to one contractor, Lockheed Martin. Production of more than 3,000 planes was supposed to make it cheaper, but it also meant that when development hit problems, there was no other stealth fighter on the market.

If it was strictly a matter of defending Canadian air space, non-stealth planes would be considered. But the University of Ottawa’s Philippe Lagassé said that the main reasons Ottawa insisted on the stealth F-35, evading radars and exchanging data with allied planes, “are all about overseas.”

Is Mr. Harper going to back away from overseas air combat at the cost of weight with allies? Not as long as he can hold out for another way. Prof. Lagassé is betting on a split decision: Ottawa will spend to extend the life of a smaller fleet of CF-18s and buy a smaller fleet of F-35s. It’s imperfect and it really relies on hope there’ll be money for more F-35s years down the road. But a quarter-turn is easier than an about-face.

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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