Harry Swain is a former federal deputy minister of Industry Canada and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada
A Tory prime minister, secure in his majority but highly suspicious of his political enemies, finds himself blind-sided by obscure processes in the departments of Defence and Industry that had gravitated to the most advanced fighter plane in the world -- but one that cost more than the country could afford. It was fifty years ago, the prime minister was John Diefenbaker, and the plane was the Avro Arrow.
Bowing to fiscal reality affected the next election, and started a national myth of loss and betrayal as persistent as the National Energy Policy or the humiliation of Quebec.
The parallels to the F-35 are eerie, but there are important differences. The basic story of vested interests in both the public and private sectors reinforcing each others’ dreams of the biggest, baddest fighter in the whole world and devil take the taxpayer’s dollars is the same, as is prevarication and mendacity when the truth about cost starts to leak out. Both governments, half a century apart, initially defended their establishments while privately getting more and more alarmed about the financial cost of continuing versus the political costs of cancellation.
But there are some important differences, too. The F-35 does not have a big maple leaf on it, nor is it a vehicle for nationalist pride. Despite the fiction that we and the other non-U.S. buyers had an important role in design and development, we were in fact merely decorative afterthoughts in a U.S.-dominated process. And a large Canadian industrial base will not have to be stood down if the F-35 is cancelled or subjected to competition.
Both aircraft were obsolete the day they first flew. The Arrow was a large, fast, high-altitude plane able to intercept subsonic Soviet bombers coming over the Pole. It would not have been much use in a dogfight, or in ground-support roles. And the threat it was designed to counter was in the process of being made obsolete by intercontinental ballistic missiles that would fly far higher and faster than any jet aircraft could hope to do. The argument is less categorical with respect to the F-35, in part because the government has refused to publish information about the threats it is supposed to deal with, or the roles it should be called on to play, but there is much evidence from the Middle East (and the Canada-U.S. border!) that unmanned aircraft can do almost everything fighters can do, and at a fraction of the cost. Current developments will only work to the further advantage of pilotless craft, to the chagrin of Battle of Britain romantics and their descendants in today’s air ministries.
Shoving the business into the hands of a committee of deputy ministers, a tactic that worked well with ship procurement, may improve the process from here on, but only if hard questions about roles and affordability are on the table. To start from the conclusions already reached with more emotion than analysis will merely be a recipe for more tears later on.