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Jeffrey Simpson on the politics of the F-35 Add to ...

Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist, wrote Wednesday about the politics surrounding Canada's purchase of the F-35 stealth fighter. The government says the state-of-the-art jet is vital for national defence; opposition critics say it is too costly for its intended purpose.

Amid election speculation, Mr. Simpson wrote, the public should expect "a relentless barrage" of public relations related to the purchase, in order to "spread good cheer all across the country and augment the government's central political message of returning prosperity."

Mr. Simpson took reader questions about the jet and the politics in a wide-ranging, informative discussion - when tech problems delayed our columnist's responses, readers stepped in to fill the gap. An excerpt:

Question: Are these new planes really necessary to our military goals?

Jeffrey Simpson: That depends almost entirely on what you assume those goals to be. In classic defence theory, a country has defence capabilities for three reasons, in no particular order: defence of the realm, aid to the civil power, and assistance in international campaigns. Obviously, the CF-35 is not designed to be an aid to the civil power. It is perhaps useful in military campaigns abroad with allies, as fighters were in Kosovo, although in many other kinds of campaigns their utility would be limited for Canada. The key argument is defence of the realm, protecting Canadian air space. The issue then would be: against what kind of threat. Definitely not propeller-driven Russian bombers, as the Harper spin machine farcically suggested. Perhaps stray aircraft as it appeared might be the case duirng the 9-11 attacks? In my view, it's hard to imagine what the threats would be to our air space, but to be fair, one never knows decades down the road what threats might arise.

Question: Wouldn't looking for a less expensive alternative to the F-35 for replacing the fleet of CF-18s, and using the savings to purchase nuclear-powered submarines better serve the long-term needs of Canada in terms of Arctic sovereignty and coastal defence?

Jeffrey Simpson: Getting a slightly cheaper (but older) fighter would in no way provide enough money for nuclear submarines, which are whoppingly expensive. We had a discussion in 1986 about nuclear submarines when then-minister of defence Perrin Beatty proposed them. The reaction was largely negative. (Heads up, if I might: Read Friday's column about where our submarine program is 14 years after we bought diesel electric subs from Britain. It's not a pretty story.)

Follow the rest of the discussion below.

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