Mitch Heimpel: A short history of our F-35 debacle

Article originally published in The Line

The news that Canada intends to buy the F-35 fighter jet, almost 12 years after it first announced that it intends to buy the F-35 fighter jet, might actually be the most Justin Trudeau thing Justin Trudeau has ever done.

Canada’s investment in what was initially called the “Joint Strike Fighter” program actually started under the Liberals. The program has undeniably run into major, embarrassing development problems, but began as a pretty good concept. The NATO alliance had just undertaken a series of air campaigns over Bosnia in the five years between 1992 and 1997, which included air-to-air combat and strikes on ground targets. These missions, both in the air and on the ground, revealed stark discrepancies between the capabilities of the various allied militaries in the wake of the end of the Cold War. Interoperability of alliance forces became a necessary focus. A jet that would be used in large numbers by the United States and across the alliance was an obvious advantage.

The Harper government doubled down on what would become the F-35 in September of 2006 when it signed Canada on to the Memorandum of Understanding for the “production, sustainment, and follow-on development” of the project. Our co-signatories on the MOU were, unsurprisingly, our closest allies (the United States, United Kingdom and Australia), along with other NATO allies. The cost was a half-billion dollars, which was then — and still is — basically a rounding error in the federal budget. In exchange, Canadian companies would get a piece of the development work for the jets; to date, this has accounted for about half a billion dollars being spent in Canada. (It did not obligate us to buy the jets.)

All of these steps to this point were surprisingly forward-looking on the part of successive Canadian governments. Surprising, because they seemed a total change from how we had done military procurement — mostly by avoiding it — since the late sixties. 

As early as 2008, the Department of National Defence was telling the government that the F-35 was the only plane that could do what our air force needed a fighter jet to do. They continued to do this for seven more years. Almost 14 years ago we were all told this was the only plane that fit our needs as a next generation fighter aircraft. A child born when the memo to report that conclusion was delivered is now a teenager.

When we announced plans for an order of 65 F-35s in 2010, that should have been the end of it. All the lessons of past procurement disasters should have told everyone with any serious aspirations of national leadership that reversing this contract could cripple an air force that was already flying planes past their best-before date. Instead we got five years of hand-wringing that put on display the worst of Ottawa’s ability to talk only to itself. It started under the Harper government; stung by criticism over the cost and accusations it had rushed to sole-source the deal, the Conservatives wavered, and then folded: they cancelled the plan to buy the 65 F-35s and chose to hold a competition instead. In the next election, the Trudeau Liberals ran against purchasing the F-35, won the election, and did nothing to pick an alternate successor plane, as the CF-18s got older and older.

This continued for seven years. Bringing us to today.

If you’re looking for a simple meta-explanation for all of us, it would be this: Canadian politicians refuse to tell the public one simple truth — military procurement is expensive. There isn’t an inexpensive version of this. That doesn’t mean we should accept any and all costs just because it’s going to be expensive. It does mean that politicians have to stop trying to sell us on there being an inexpensive, or perfect, version of this. There is no MacGyver version of military procurement. No amount of rubber bands and paper clips replaces jet engines and submarines, no matter how many times we pretend it will. Indeed, the longer you delay, the more it’ll cost — the weapons generally get more expensive, and you end up spending more money to wring every last bit of use out of what equipment you already have, instead of replacing it in an efficient, orderly way.

So, let’s recap: We are, in fact, so bad at procurement that we ran a process for years, and then cancelled it. And then pledged not to buy the jets we’d originally pleged to buy. We then bought seven old Australian F-18s so we could keep our elderly and dwindling CF-18 fleet from experiencing a “capability gap” caused mostly by not just buying the F-35 in the first place. Then, almost 12 years after announcing we were going to buy the F-35, after all the drama above, we’ve announced we’ll buy the F-35, after all. Eighty eight of them, in fact. So there’s that, I guess.

In so many ways, the F-35 saga is another symbol of seven years of Trudeau governance. In 2015, the Liberals could not have been more clear in their campaign platform, which included a whole section titled “We will not buy the F-35 stealth bomber-fighter.”

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