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newswatch

Airhead Superiority

Conservative big-bucks warplanes are pricey and dumb

by Stephen LaRose

It’s like Dad buying a Lamborghini for the morning commute after warning the family they have to cut back on groceries. Sixteen billion dollars of Canadian citizens’ money will buy 65 F-35 Lightning jet fighters, plus all the accoutrements — flight simulators, spare parts — that come with them.
 
Defense minister Peter McKay made the announcement at a glitzy Ottawa unveiling July 17, less than a month after Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a government restraint package.
 
The F-35 might be as big a threat to Canada — both in its cost and its military ineffectiveness — as any military power it’s meant to defend Canada against.
 
Whether or not we need warplanes such as these, there’s an issue that the government is going into this purchase without allowing for competitive bidding,” says Jack Harris (MP-St. John’s East), the New Democratic Party’s national defense critic.
 
The government hasn’t been able to justify this purchase, and is doing everything it can to push this through at a time when it doesn’t have the support of the House of Commons or, probably, of the public,” says Harris.
 
But if you look at what the F-35 is good at and not good at, the plane might well be the first stage of a new defense philosophy for Canada — in which equipping Canada’s military to take part in an American-led offensive war is a greater priority than defending the True North Strong and Free.
 
The F-35 is a multi-role combat aircraft, designed, supposedly, to provide all services to all air forces (Canada’s buying the F-35A variant: there’s also a model built with short/vertical takeoff and landing capabilities and a third for aircraft carriers). But planes built for multi-role combat are often jacks-of-all-trades, masters of none: in that way, the F-35 may not meet Canadian defense requirements.
 
In late 2008, the Flight International aviation magazine quoted secret documents resulting from a study by the RAND Corporation, a California-based military think tank, and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. The war games study said the best way for a foreign air force (say China or Russia) to defeat the F-35 in combat would be to shoot down the flying tankers that would refuel the fighters in mid-air. The fighters would run out of fuel, and both pilots and planes would be lost.
 
This isn’t what you want to hear about a fighter aircraft whose main mission is long-range patrol and interception over the Canadian arctic islands from bases in southern Canada. It also has a slower speed and one less engine than the plane it replaces, the CF-18 Hornet. (Since North American Air Defense Command was created, the Canadian air force always demanded twin engine jets — from the de Havilland Vampire to the CF-18 — on the premise that a two-engine fighter was more likely to survive a breakdown or getting shot up far away from its base than a one-engine plane.)
 
While possessing more sophisticated avionics than the CF-18, the F-35’s major advance over its predecessor is its smaller radar signature — making it a better weapon for delivering a ‘shock and awe’ strike against a dug-in enemy in a war’s first minutes.
 
Maybe the Canadian Armed Forces’ role has been redefined and Canada’s military is now preparing for an offensive war, much like the combat the Conservatives demanded Canada take part in during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
 
Another advantage it may have over competing designs is that the F-35 may give the Canadian air force a role in the American ‘Star Wars’ ballistic missile defense system. Two days after the Ottawa unveiling, Tom Burbage, executive vice president of F-35 program integration at Lockheed Martin, said at a press conference during the Farnborough Air Show in England that the plane’s advanced sensor system could be used for ballistic missile defense. Burbage said this after a test of the F-35’s weapons control systems earlier that month.
 
Are jet motors more reliable today, so the air force doesn’t need a twin-engine plane for arctic defense? Are we getting more involved with American missile defense? How can we afford these planes, in context of not only other Canadian defense requirements, but also in the federal budget (there’s only so much money, you know)? These are debates that belong in the public arena, and that’s why the deal to purchase the fighter aircraft should have been discussed in the House of Commons, says Harris.
 
In an age when citizens would rebel against the kind of sacrifices a society would need to ‘win’ a total war — conscription, economic rationing, that sort of thing — a country had better have the right weapons right away if they want to play around with short, hot wars. Spending billions on the wrong weapons — say, on high-tech jet fighters in the age of asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency operations — is as devastating to a military force as sending your troops to the wrong spots to do battle.
 
That’s how France lost in Vietnam and Algeria; that’s how the U.S. lost in Vietnam; that’s how the Soviet Union lost both Afghanistan and the Cold War (going bankrupt and losing public support before firing a shot), and that’s how NATO has lost in Afghanistan.
 
On that analysis, the F-35 fails. It diverts federal tax money not only from programs that would make Canadians feel that this country would be worth defending — a better infrastructure, a stronger social safety net, a national daycare strategy that Harper scrapped — but also for Canada’s true national defense needs, which are ships, peacekeeping forces, better counterinsurgency combat abilities, long-range patrol aircraft and increased search-and-rescue capabilities.
 
Using the F-35 on bombing raids in Afghanistan, or other guerrilla war battles, makes as much economic and military sense as playing Whac-A-Mole with garbage bags stuffed with $100 bills.
 
We’re not in the same situation that we faced in the Cold War, facing off against the Russians,” says Harris. “Who are the enemies who pose an air threat to Canada?”
 
If the Conservative government can’t or won’t answer that question, maybe, in the words of the old Pogo cartoon, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”