When the Harper government comes calling for advice on replacing the country’s venerable CF-18 fighters, the new commander of Canadian Air Force says he’ll repeat what his predecessor has said — the F-35 is the best choice.
But Lt.-Gen. Yvan Blondin was also quick to paint himself as a pragmatist.
“In the end, I’m a military guy. I’m going to salute and carry on with orders and the equipment the government judges adequate,” said Lt.-Gen. Blondin shortly after taking over from retiring lieutenant-general Andre Deschamps, whose stalwart defence of the troubled stealth-fighter program occasionally landed him in hot water.
Since the auditor general’s scathing assessment of the program last spring, almost everyone in the government, from the prime minister on down, has insisted that a new secretariat overseeing the replacement of the older fighter bombers will look at all options as it analyzes the F-35 program.
Lt.-Gen. Deschamps’ insistence that the Lockheed-Martin-built, multi-role fighter is the only choice has irked opposition MPs, who’ve pointed to his testimony before a House of Commons committee as proof that the fix is in for the F-35.
Lt.-Gen. Blondin, a former fighter pilot and 33-year veteran, said his best advice would be to stick with the program.
“I truly believe, given the mandate that we have now, the F-35 is, from all airplanes that are available, is the best airplane that’s out there,” he said, but then quickly added: “Now, I’m not a man of absolutes.”
Lt.-Gen. Blondin’s show of deference is a bit of a departure from Lt.-Gen. Deschamps, who was heavily invested in the 2010 stealth-fighter decision. The auditor general accused both National Defence and Public Works of hiding the full cost and not following proper procedures with the multibillion-dollar program.
Defence expert Phil Lagasse at the University of Ottawa said it’s disturbing to note that even though it said the secretariat will look at other options, the government doesn’t seem to have ordered the air force to do the same.
“It signals the lack of clear guidance from the government about exactly what they want to do,” he said. “It signals a recognition that the file is uncertain and (has) become extremely political, and that military advice and cost alone may not be what determines the outcome anymore.”
Mr. Lagasse said he wonders whether the process has become tainted.
“Will the choice be made according to an overall assessment of the tradeoff and the options? Or will it be made as a function to reduce controversy and avoid negative perceptions?” he said.
The F-35 is not expected to exit its development phase until 2019, which is about the time the CF-18s will reach the end of their service life, but Lt.-Gen. Blondin says service life is not a finite line and he believes the air force can keep the old jets flying until at least 2025, perhaps beyond.
Documents tabled in Parliament last spring peg the CF-18 airframes as being worn out by about 2020, but a series of military experts say there are costly life extensions the government could consider.
Lt.-Gen. Blondin also pointed out that the easier the planes are driven, the longer they’ll last.
“This is just like a car. The more you use and depending on how you use, it’s going to define how long you keep it,” he said.
Internal air force documents show there was angst within the ranks of military planners during last year’s Libya bombing campaign about how much life the combat missions would shave off the jets.
After remarks to the parade of dignitaries and military brass, Lt.-Gen. Blondin was asked whether a budget ax is about to come down on the air force.
“I’m an air force guy. I’m not a politician. I do not deal with this, but certainly the air force is influenced by economics,” he said.