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Will Canada shun the F-35?

TORONTO, Canada — After two years of vigorously defending its agreement to buy US-made fighter jets, Canada’s Conservative government has suddenly opened the door to backing out of the controversial purchase.

Forcing its hand is a reality the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to acknowledge for the past year — the cost of buying 65 F-35 Lightning II jets will be significantly higher than the $9 billion budgeted.

The associate minister of national defense, Julian Fantino, announced a possible end to the deal in a halting statement before parliament’s defense committee.

“We have not as yet discounted, the possibility, of course, of backing out of any of the program,” Fantino told the committee on March 13.

He added that “the decision will be made as to whether or not Canada will actually enter into a contract to purchase the F-35” once it knows what the actual cost will be.

It was a stunning about-face for the Harper government. Until then, it had dismissed evidence of having horribly underestimated the cost of the new jet fighters as nothing more than “clatter and noise,” in the words of Defense Minister Peter MacKay.

In July 2010, the federal government announced it would buy 65 F-35 stealth fighters, made by Lockheed Martin. They would replace Canada’s existing fleet of 80 CF-18 fighters, due to be retired between 2017 and 2020.

At the time, MacKay said the fighter was needed to ensure Canada’s sovereignty, to “shoulder our share of the NATO and international load, and lead by example.”

The purchase is in line with the government’s disputed transformation of Canada’s military role internationally, from a peacekeeping tradition to more aggressive deployments. The shift began in 2002, when Canada sent troops to help fight the Afghan war, and accelerated when Harper’s Conservatives came to power in 2006.

Under Harper, generals “stressed the war-fighting capacity of the Canadian forces,” writes military historian Jack Granatstein. By 2010, Canada’s military budget stood at $21 billion a year — a 50 percent increase since 2003, most of it occurring under Harper’s watch. (On March 29, the Harper government announced a 5 percent cut in the military’s budget.)

“Canada cannot lead with words alone,” the Harper government wrote in its 2008 Canada First Defense Strategy. “Above all else, leadership requires the ability to deploy military assets, including ‘boots on the ground.’” 

John Siebert, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a Canadian anti-war group, recently denounced Canada’s sudden embrace of military might.

“Most Canadians would be surprised at this change in how Canada presents itself officially to the world,” Siebert said. “Harper has put a strong military at the heart of Canadian foreign policy, not just defense policy. And he has gone a step further, calling alternative approaches ‘timid and trendy.’”

During Libya’s civil war, Canadian pilots dropped more than 330 laser-guided bombs as part of NATO’s mission against the forces of the late dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. The purchase of F-35s would preserve the capability for similar missions in the future.

The United States government chose Lockheed Martin in 2001 to lead the development of the “fifth generation” warplane. Canada and seven other US allies, including Britain and Italy, partnered with the United States to finance a fraction of the development costs. Over the next two decades, the US plans to buy more than 2,400 of the planes.

Opposition parties immediately attacked the government for settling on a fighter jet without tender. They added that as a “sole-sourced procurement” deal, there would be no alternative on the market if the F-35 was hit with production problems.

Critics also noted a discrepancy the federal government never explained — the cost for a single plane, as calculated by the Harper government, was significantly lower than the cost calculated by the US government.

Others accused the federal government of misplaced priorities during troubled economic times. Such attacks are likely to grow after Harper’s deficit-fighting national budget announcement on March 29, which pushed back the eligibility age for a large part of pension payments from 65 to 67 years old.

Pressure mounted in March 2011, when parliament’s financial watchdog, Parliamentary Officer Kevin Page, calculated that the price of buying and maintaining the fighter jets over 30 years would be $30 billion — about twice the government’s estimate.

Making matters worse was news that the first batch of F-35s would lack the capability to communicate in Canada’s high Arctic region, where radio signals have to bounce off satellites. Then came word of serious technical flaws discovered during testing, including a generator failure that grounded all F-35s. Last week, the CBC revealed the plane doesn’t meet Canadian military requirements. 

Last December, the Pentagon announced that production and delivery would be delayed. Allies suddenly got cold feet. Turkey and Italy announced they would cut back their orders for the fighters due to budget restraints, and Britain and the Netherlands said they would postpone a decision on its purchase.

Last month, the United States joined the retreat, confirming it would postpone orders for 179 F-35s to save money and allow more time for testing. Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president, Tom Burbage, told reporters that the US decision would “raise the overall average cost of the total procurement of all the airplanes bought.” At that point, the Canadian government’s insistence that its questionable $9 billion price tag was correct became untenable.

By suddenly announcing it might back out of the deal altogether, the Harper government signaled just how troubled the Lockheed’s F-35 program might be. A report last month by the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think-tank founded by influential Democrat John Podesta, called the F-35 program “a complete disaster.” It is “on track to become the most expensive weapons system ever,” the report added, making clear that part of the program — the F-35s destined for the Marine Corps and Navy — should be canceled. 

The F-35s troubles have some Canadians nostalgically recalling the homegrown Arrow fighter jet program, killed in 1958 by the then-Conservative government. Politically, it has added to pressure on Defense Minister MacKay. He recently faced calls to resign when it was revealed he ordered a military helicopter to pick him up during a fishing holiday simply to spare himself a two-hour boat ride to shore.

Short of cancelling the deal, the Canadian government could reduce the number of F-35s it buys, or extend the life of its CF-18s, or both. Either way, it would add to the growing list of canceled or postponed orders for the fighter jet, further boosting its price tag. The saga of the F-35s — and of Canada’s militaristic transformation — isn’t over yet.

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