A clearer path for fighter jets, but a grim day for Peter MacKay

John Geddes explains why rebooting the plan is not as easy as pressing a button

It was painful to listen to Defence Minister Peter MacKay this afternoon as he faced repeated questions from reporters on whether he has any regrets about his handling of the government’s program to buy F-35 fighter jets.

Today’s news, not surprisingly, is that the problem-plagued Lockheed Martin jet is only one of several whose costly tires the government will soon be kicking. And so pretty much everything MacKay has ever said about the necessity and inevitability of the F-35 procurement has proven to be dead wrong.

He might have made it easier to hear his answers without wincing had he just admitted to past mistakes. Failing that mature, obvious response, he might have clung to a fragment of dignity by resolving at least not to drag Canadian men and women in uniform into it.

But no. His couldn’t restrain himself. He couldn’t resist bringing up his concern for the troops when pointedly asked if he had any regrets about his past harsh words toward critics who raised what turned out to be entirely valid concerns about the F-35 program.

“Look I’m very proud of what the Canadian Forces do,” he answered, as if that were germane. “I work with them daily. I feel very passionately about the obligation that I hold as minister of national defence to ensure that they have the best equipment that enables them to have mission success, to do their work, work that we ask of them, where they put themselves willingly in harm’s way.”

MacKay’s passionate feeling, we’re left to suppose, must be why he announced that the Canadian government was committed to buying 65 F-35s without properly disclosing the full costs, as was later conclusively established in a damning report last spring by the federal Auditor General. And why he slapped back criticisms with overblown warnings, like the one about how failing to press ahead with the F-35 buy would expose Canada to “real danger we’ll be unable to defend and exercise our sovereignty.”

Every element of his and the government’s earlier line of argument on the F-35—that it was the only jet that could possibly do the job, that the cost had been properly assessed and explained to taxpayers, that there was no chance an open bidding process might get Canada an adequate fighter for a better price—has been thoroughly junked.

As of today’s release of a stack of new documents, accompanied by a background briefing for reporters and a news conference featuring MacKay and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose (now the lead minister of the file), the jet fighter picture is considerably clearer and more credible.

Based on a new formula set by the consulting firm KPMG, the full cost if Canada went ahead with buying 65 F-35s, spread over 12 years of development and 30 years of flying, is estimated at $45.8 billion. To check out the other jets available on the international market—and belatedly determine what they might cost and how they might match up with Canada’s needs—the government has appointed a panel of four independent experts.

“We have hit the reset button,” Ambrose said in what was clearly meant to be the day’s takeaway phrase, “and are taking the time to do a complete assessment of all available aircraft.”

That sounded refreshingly brisk and practical. It was certainly a good deal easier to listen to than MacKay’s self-serving digression on his devotion to the troops. But of course it’s not as easy as pressing a button.

For starters, Canada is a paid-up member of a nine-country consortium—led by the U.S. and also including Britain, Italy, Holland, Turkey, Australia, Norway and Denmark—to bring the F-35 into production. All signed up planning to buy the F-35, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter. Another report released today said 72 Canadian companies have secured contracts worth nearly $500 million under that arrangement, and that about $9 billion more in “opportunities” have been identified by Industry Canada.

This week in the House, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued warnings about the work Canadian aerospace companies would lose if Canada dropped out of the F-35 club. “Canadian companies,” he said, “have hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts for that [fighter jet] work, and the government has no intention of ripping up those contracts.”

On the other hand, a senior government official briefing reporters today said it is possible Canada might somehow remain part of the F-35 consortium, even if the government ultimately decides to ask Lockheed Martin to compete with other jet makers for the fighter contract. But after the briefing, asked by Maclean’s how that would work, the official said staying in F-35 group while running a competitive bidding process would be “technically possible but extremely difficult.”

So it seems the reset button has been pushed only as far as taking a look at the alternatives on the market is concerned. The truly tough politics won’t come until the government must decide either to abandon the F-35 project or stick with it. Either flight path will be highly controversial. Whichever it is, one can only guess MacKay won’t be the minister explaining the course ahead.

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