By: John Ivision, National Post
OTTAWA — One of the first lessons a president learns is that every word he says weighs a ton, Calvin Coolidge once said.
The same is true of Canadian prime ministers, which is perhaps why you haven’t heard Justin Trudeau talk recently about blocking Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet from the competition to replace the venerable CF-18s.
During the election, he vowed a Liberal government would not buy the F-35 stealth fighter, freeing up “tens of billions of dollars” to spend on the navy.
Opposition leaders don’t have access to the classified information available to prime ministers and that may explain why, once in power, his defence minister was markedly less enthusiastic about ruling out the F-35 when he launched his defence review earlier this month. Harjit Sajjan said the process will be open and transparent, suggesting the new statement of requirement that will outline the parameters of the tender process will not be written to exclude the stealth fighter.
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Privately, Liberal sources suggest the prime minister has spoken and the defence department will take the hint unless told otherwise. Sajjan launched the first public roundtable of the defence review in Vancouver Wednesday but the suspicion among many observers is that the government has already decided it just needs a lovely little runaround jet, to surveil our northern fringes, rather than a top-of-the-range air-to-ground combat aircraft that could support an expeditionary force.
Charlie Bouchard, the retired air force general and former commander of the NATO mission in Libya, is now Lockheed’s man in Canada.
Not surprisingly, he makes a passionate case about why the F-35 should be given a fair shake in any beauty parade of new jets.
The F-35 has been selected in every instance where it was an option, with 10 other countries already having placed firm orders; more than 650 aircraft will be flying before the first Canadian F-35 could arrive; it would be inter-operable with NATO allies; every F-35 produced to date has Canadian components, produced by 110 companies; and the price is projected to fall to less than $85 million per plane by the time Canada receives its first aircraft.
|Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian PressPrime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, arrives with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, left, and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, for a cabinet retreat in Kananaskis, Alta., on April 25.|
The Conservatives originally chose the F-35 as the replacement for the CF-18 but the ham-fisted way it was chosen drew the opprobrium of the opposition parties and the auditor general.
There were sound reasons to criticize the process under the Tories, a comedy of errors where the uniforms in the Department of National Defence decided they wanted the shiniest toy in the store and skewed the process to ensure it won the competition.
It would be inglorious if defence and security strategy was devised on the hustings
But it would be equally inglorious if defence and security strategy was devised on the hustings because the F-35 had become an F-word for voters.
Trudeau has promised evidence-based policy; indeed, in his mandate letter to Sajjan, he said: “Canadians need to have faith in the government’s honesty and willingness to listen.”
It’s by no means clear that Canadians should share Bouchard’s passion and optimism for the F-35. The Senate Armed Defence Committee in Washington heard this week that the F-35B cannot land in heavy winds.
J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational tests, said that the F-35 program had 1,165 documented deficiencies, 151 of which were Category 1 — defined as deficiencies that could cause death or severe injury. Who’d be a fighter jet test pilot?
|Postmedia NewsCanadian Forces members look at the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter, F-35 Lighting II in a hanger in Ottawa in 2010.|
But Canada is three years away from receiving any new planes. The reliability of the jet is likely to improve — the program manager told the committee they are making “solid progress” — and the cost is predicted to come down (it has fallen 57 per cent since 2010).
Canada will choose an American-built plane — no one inside the Twin Towers of the Department of National Defence is under any illusion that the European options are feasible, given the realpolitik of Canada’s position in NORAD and NATO.
That leaves Boeing’s Super Hornet, or perhaps Lockheed’s F-16. Neither are likely to be exempt the 10- to 15-per-cent foreign military sales surcharge levied by the U.S. government. Lockheed claims the F-35’s exemption makes the price per plane comparable to less capable fourth-generation fighters.
Partner countries like Australia will demand this country forfeit its right to high-tech jobs
It’s also clear that if Canada pulls out of the F-35 program, partner countries like Australia will demand this country forfeit its right to high-tech jobs, such as the 400 people employed by Magellan Aerospace in Winnipeg making wing parts for every F-35 that comes off the production line.
One of the more interesting characteristics of this new prime minister is his flexibility and lack of fear in making bold policy shifts, if the circumstances warrant.
In this case, Trudeau should not rule out the F-35 just because he once said he would.