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Jeffrey Simpson: Search for new jet becomes a flight of fancy

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.

The Globe and Mail

'We will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter bomber," says the Liberal Party campaign platform.

The Globe and Mail's editorial cartoonist, Brian Gable, is Canada's best journalist, and witness to this is how many National Newspaper Awards he has won.

As usual, my colleague's drawing last Saturday captured the Liberal government's quandary over a new fighter plane better than 1,000 words.

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The drawing showed various military onlookers next to the bottom of a jet. In the foreground, looking satisfied, a smiling pilot grins while wearing a T-shirt that reads "Politics." Perfect.

For politics – not surprisingly – has enveloped what ought to have been a serious decision worth many billions of dollars, and perhaps many lives should the worst come to the worst.

The F-35 has now been purchased by 11 countries, the latest to give the plane a green light being Denmark. In each case, save the United States where the F-35 was developed, countries opted for the Lockheed-Martin F-35, a fighter with stealth technology, over alternatives such as Boeing's Super Hornet.

There was one exception – Australia – that purchased a limited number of Super Hornets while remaining in the F-35 development program. This seems to be the Liberal government's preferred option.

The trouble is that the Liberals, while promising in the campaign that they would not buy the more expensive F-35, also pledged to hold an "open and transparent" purchasing competition provided the F-35 was not one of the options.

The contradiction between these two promises – an "open and transparent process" to examine all options, but not the F-35 – has now been exposed as the cabinet wrestles with what to do.

Not buying the F-35 would put Canada way offside with its NATO allies, negating the important military utility of "interoperability" of equipment with allies. It would also put Canada behind emerging stealth threats sure to come from Russia and China.

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Buying the F-35 would be to both proceed down the track of the Harper government, heaven forbid, and to break a campaign promise. Moreover, the process has not been "open and transparent" to date, but rather completely opaque, the matter having been placed in the hands of a special cabinet committee.

The F-35, it should be said, has been a troubled child of the U.S. military. There are three variations of the plane, and each has had its share of problems. The model the Harper government eyed turned out to be behind schedule and overbudget, as the Auditor-General's Office discovered much to the government's embarrassment.

With political questions swirling round the F-35 purchase, the Harper government got nervous. Nothing was done about proceeding with the purchase, although various Canadian companies continued to work on parts of the F-35. These companies will eventually lose that business if the Trudeau government spurns the F-35.

There was something else implausible about the campaign platform. It asserted that "by purchasing more affordable alternatives to the F-35s, we will be able to invest in strengthening the navy.… We will have the funds to build promised icebreakers, supply ships, Arctic and offshore patrol ships, surface combatants, and other resources required by the navy."

Who wrote these things? The idea that Canada could save the vast sums of money by buying a fighter other than the F-35 necessary to find the tens of billions of dollars required to fill all these gaps in the navy is and was preposterous. But in a campaign in which defence policy did not figure, statements such as this could fly under the radar.

The fighter-jet decision, awkward as it would always be, is made more challenging because the government has launched what it calls a major defence policy review. It would mean putting the proverbial cart before the horse to make a multibillion-dollar purchase of a fighter jet before the review is finished.

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So the government now insists urgency is the order of the day because of a "capability gap." This newly articulated "capability gap" arises because Canada's refitted CF-18 fighter jets must be replaced in the early-to-mid part of the next decade.

A replacement is therefore needed more quickly than the F-35s, which means buying off the shelf the battle-tested Super Hornet that will be chosen without any "open and transparent" process and before the completion of the defence review. But at least in keeping with the campaign promise, it won't be the F-35.

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