Since my last two articles focused on the United States, I thought it was about time to write something about Canadian affairs. As some of you may know, Canada is currently in the process of replacing our primary tactical fighter aircraft – the CF-18 – with the fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, the F-35. There is little argument that the RCAF’s CF-18s are in need of replacement, as they are quickly approaching the end of their operational lifespan; however the decision to purchase 65 F-35 fighters has been one of the most controversial positions of the Harper government. Although the fierce debate over the jets has been ongoing since the federal government’s 2010 announcement to acquire the Lockheed Martin-produced aircraft, all signs indicate that Canada will proceed with the purchase.
So why did the F-35 become such a contentious issue in the first place, and why has it stayed in our political discourse for the better part of the past two years? This brief article will hopefully answer those questions. Firstly, the F-35 purchase is a significant expense for Canada, one which the Department of National Defence claims will cost about $9 billion. There are also concerns over the aircraft’s suitability for Canada, in particular the fact that the plane operates on a single engine. This has been cited as a potential problem, given that the jets would be expected to patrol Canada’s vast airspace, particularly in the far north, where landing strips are few and far between. Were that engine to fail, pilots would have little time to find somewhere to safely land. Additionally, the F-35 has a relatively low range, which could pose a problem given the vast distances of Canada.
The F-35 purchase has been a politically hot issue due to significant disagreement and alleged misrepresentation by the government over the true cost of the aircraft. Both the Auditor-General and the Parliamentary Budget Office have filed reports indicating that the true, internal cost estimate by the Department of National Defence is $25 billion, despite public claims by Defence officials as well as Defence Minister Peter McKay. Auditor-General Michael Ferguson has also asserted that significant information is missing from the government’s cost estimates. With such a large discrepancy in the internal estimates versus the publicly-released ones, the Opposition has hammered the Conservative government with accusations of deliberately misleading Parliament and the Canadian people.
Despite the political firestorm that surrounds the F-35, Canada’s top military officials have steadfastly supported the program, declaring it to be the best option for the Canadian air force. The newly appointed Chief of Defence Staff, Lieutenant-General Tom Lawson, is also a strong supporter of the F-35 program. There are many questions that still surround Canada’s involvement with the F-35, and the issue is far deeper and complex that can’t hope to be explained in a few short paragraphs. However, I hope that this short article was able to provide some information on what remains one of Canada’s biggest political debates.
Graeme Archibald is a fourth-year Political Science student with an interest in how much it costs to blow stuff up from the sky.