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A Canadian Forces pilot has his picture taken in front of a F-35 fighter mock-up prior to a procurement announcement in Ottawa on July 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
A Canadian Forces pilot has his picture taken in front of a F-35 fighter mock-up prior to a procurement announcement in Ottawa on July 16, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

Stealth jets, brought to you by a spin machine on steroids Add to ...

The Harper government's spin machine is so pervasive and over-the-top, daily exposure leads to the dilemma of laughing or crying. Everything the spin machine spits out portrays Canada as a worldwide leader, at the top of something or other, or doing better than ever.

As in, Canada is a "clean energy superpower," a claim demonstrably false by any conceivable international measure. As in, Canada is a "free-trade leader," a claim belied, among other yardsticks, by being shut out of Pacific trade talks and being an obstacle to a deal at the World Trade Organization, both courtesy of agricultural supply management. As in, Canada is an economic model for debt management, a claim destroyed last week by the OECD, which lumped personal, provincial and federal debt together and showed Canada to be among the most indebted of member countries.

Most journalists have simply given up trying to square the spin machine's relentless, daily exaggerations. But once in a while, the spin machine produces a whopper so outrageous, it becomes side-splittingly funny, as in the recent claim by the Prime Minister's spokesman that Canadian CF-18 fighter jets had chased away Russian planes in the Arctic, thereby demonstrating the kind of muscle Canadians expect from their military. This muscularity showed why the government is right that Canada should spend $16-billion on 65 new stealth jets and their maintenance.

Think of a threat from Russian bombers. That was a very scary potential problem - about 60 years ago, before the invention of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) made an over-the-pole attack from the Soviet air force almost inconceivable. When missiles were placed on submarines decades ago, the threat of a bomber attack completely disappeared.

Moreover, these allegedly threatening Russian planes that were patrolling their territory were - wait for it - propeller-driven. Think about that, and how long it would take for bombers with propellers to leave Russian bases and fly over the Arctic and the rest of northern Canada before they reached targets in southern Canada or the northern U.S.

The whole scenario was the product of a spin machine on steroids that assumes, perhaps not without reason, that a somnolent public will believe even a part of this (hysterically funny) hysteria and invention.

When not playing up the non-existent Russian threat, Peter MacKay and other ministers have been resorting to another old trick to justify the fighters: government defence contracts. Anyone inside government, or any half-informed outside observer, knows that whichever party governs, defence contracts are mostly about where things will get built, not whether the equipment is needed. Defence debates around every cabinet table quickly degenerate into which parts of the country will get what. Once that crucial matter is settled, the marketing of the decision rests largely on the largesse to be distributed.

So these Conservative ministers, like previous Liberal ones, tell Canadians they must have this extremely expensive jet to create jobs. It's the worst possible justification for purchasing kit, because if Canada did not purchase a fighter plane, it could use the money to buy some other piece(s) of kit and spread jobs around that way.

Of course, the aerospace industry salivates for contracts. Defence contractors always do. But The Economist's recent survey of defence industries made clear how costs are skyrocketing everywhere, so that no one can be sure a quoted cost for something today will be remotely close to the actual cost. Then, there is the classic argument: We need the fighters because you never know what can happen. True, but following that argument to its logical conclusion suggests Canada should have every kind of kit for every conceivable threat. So bring on nuclear-powered subs, anti-ballistic missiles and a whole host of other expensive equipment.

Once these pretty thin arguments are exposed, the last one remains: that every self-respecting country should be able patrol its air space with fighter jets, whose utility, by the way, in counterinsurgency is nil. Okay, patrol against which threats? Those Russian bombers? Terrorist aviators?

This argument is not a cold analysis of risk and of where to spend scarce dollars, it's a chest-thumping cliché that obscures choices rather than sharpening them.

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