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Are you confused about the flap over the F-35? Me, too. Frankly, anyone's head would spin. So I found some experts and asked them to explain it in terms that even I could understand. Here's what I found out.

What's so great about F-35s, anyway?

The F-35 is the next generation of fighter jets. It's supposed to last for 30 years, and will make our aging planes look like Sopwith Camels. The technology is so advanced, it's still being invented. Many of its features are so secret, we have no idea what they are.

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What are these planes good for?

They're especially good for fighting wars. If we ever wind up fighting Russia or China, these are the planes to have. But our government doesn't want to mention that. It knows Canadians are squeamish about aggression. What we really want is to be peacekeepers. Back in 2010, Peter MacKay, the Defence Minister, avoided the word "war" altogether when he justified the F-35 by saying it'd be an excellent recruiting tool for pilots.

How did we get mixed up in this mess in the first place?

We wanted to ride the Americans' coattails. As U.S. defence writer Loren Thompson has explained, "The F-35 fighter was conceived as the cheapest way of modernizing the tactical air fleets of three U.S. military services and eight foreign allies." By buying the same plane, we'd get all the latest stuff much cheaper than we could get on our own. Plus we'd be able to talk to the people on our side. Plus we could punch above our weight. It all looked so good on paper.

So the Americans are really driving the development of this plane?

Of course. But our government doesn't like to mention that, either.

Are all defence-procurement programs as screwed up as this one?

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Pretty much. They're like kitchen renovations – always late and over budget – only more so. New technologies are hugely expensive and hard to get right. Defence companies underbid to get the contracts. Defence departments lowball the costs to get the equipment they want. The government goes along so as not to scare the public. The only thing that's different about this program is the size. It's the biggest in history.

Was it any better under the previous regime?

No. The Liberals brought us the EH101 helicopters and the leaky submarines from Britain.

Who's in charge of defence procurement in Canada?

Everyone and no one. This is not such a bad thing (except for the taxpayer) because, when things go wrong, they can point fingers at each other. People generally agree that one minister should be responsible. But no one wants the job.

Is it possible Peter MacKay didn't know the costs were going up?

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Maybe he forgot to read the U.S. newspapers. Senior American military officers and politicians have talked openly about the F-35's escalating costs. More than a year ago, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated that the per plane cost had risen to $127-million.

If we haven't signed anything yet, why not just drop out?

Our aerospace industry has a huge amount at stake. Canadian firms stand to land billions in contracts for their participation. Even the Bloc Québécois went along with the F-35, because lucrative contracts would be going to Quebec. Besides, Britain and Australia and all the other countries that agreed to buy these planes are still on side. We'll look like bad team players if we quit. This project has been designed to be too big to fail.

Does anyone know how much these planes will really cost?


Do defence ministers ever have any fun?

Oh, absolutely. They get to pose for photos in the cockpits of new jets and pretend they're fighter pilots. They can get helicopters to pick them up on vacation. And they have lots of opportunities to meet gorgeous women.

What does "stealth" mean?

No one's really sure. It's top secret.

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More

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