A bit more on the government’s tone on the F-35

Anyone who thought the F-35 was a done deal had ample reason to think so

AP Photo/U.S. Air Force

There’s been an energetic exchange today between my colleague Aaron Wherry and MP Chris Alexander over the nature of the government’s commitment to buy Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter.

Alexander takes Wherry to task for offering up a handy compendium of public comments, mostly from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay in 2010 and 2011, in which they clearly describe their government as firmly decided on the F-35.

Speaking in his role as MacKay’s parliamentary secretary, Alexander argues that the proper thing would be to report only on the government’s more recent policy stance, announced on April 3 this year, in which it backed away from all those previous assertions about the absolute necessity of buying F-35s.

Make what you will of this back-and-forth. But I would add that it isn’t just the remarks of top Conservative politicians that have cast the Joint Strike Fighter as a settled and major element of Canadian defence and industrial policy. The F-35 has features prominently in various official federal documents aimed at companies that need to know what’s up with Canada’s procurement policy.

For instance, there’s the document “F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF): Canada’s Next Generation Fighter Capability,” (admittedly, last updated on Nov. 11, 2011, which Alexander might regard as the mists of pre-history), on Industry Canada’s website. It boasts of the advantages Canadian companies have already reaped from Ottawa’s place in the JSF partnership, and confidently predicts that as “full-rate production” of the jets commences, many “further opportunities will be available to Canadian industry in areas such as sustainment, maintenance, repair, training, and simulation”—for the next 40 years!

Well, not if Canada drops out of the U.S.-led, nine-country partnership that’s developing the jets and buying most of them. But the possibility that Canada will pull out of the F-35 club—which the government now wants very much to present as a real option—isn’t alluded to in any way in Industry Canada’s description of the program.

Similarly, companies interested in applying for federal support under the department’s Strategic Aerospace and Defence Initiative might also be forgiven for taking away the impression that the Joint Strike Fighter is a locked-in certainty, if they read the Feb. 16, 2012 document (again, I’m reaching way back to before that April 3 turning point) outlining the SADI. Among the “strategic R & D activities” listed as eligible for funding are any that  “assist the sector in achieving Canada’s international obligations (e.g. development programs supported by Canada such as the Joint Strike Fighter program.”

Now, it’s important to note that neither of these Industry Canada documents states that Canada has signed a contract to buy F-35s (it hasn’t). But they present support for the Joint Strike Fighter’s development as a core federal initiative—nothing remotely tentative or contingent or short-term about it So for Chris Alexander to blame the opposition for perpetrating the view that “obligations had been undertaken” regarding this jet is pretty hard to take seriously.

As for the idea that everything was clarified last April 3, it actually wasn’t until three weeks later that the Defence department got around to changing its official “Plans and Priorities” report to downgrade the F-35 purchase from having received preliminary funding approval to only being an option under analysis. It’s a technical difference but, with the waters so thoroughly muddied, it’s reassuring to think that these things still need to be written down someplace.

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