Friday, March 18, 2011

The Libya mission and fighter jet politics

In covering the Libya no-fly zone story, the Globe gives the Harper government a boost on the F-35s:
The Libyan assignment gives the Harper government a chance to demonstrate why Canada needs top-notch fighter jets. The Tories are under fire for committing an estimated $15-billion or more to purchase new F-35 stealth fighter, expected to arrive starting in 2016 or 2017.
Granted, that the CF-18s will somehow be used in connection with a Libyan international mission will remind the public that yes, we do have fighter jets and they can be used in international military situations. But are stealth jets required in the Libyan context? No. The very fact that we are sending CF-18s reinforces that point. Libya actually makes the case that the FA-18 Super Hornet would be an equally capable choice for Canada. So Libya doesn't actually provide a chance to demonstrate the case for the F-35, contrary to the Globe's helpful stage-setting for the Harper government. Here's a Canadian Press report and one from Postmedia without the needless editorial intervention.

The debate is over what kind of plane we need to buy, how many, why are we sole-sourcing the F-35, what are Canada's needs, etc. Whether the stealth F-35 first strike combat oriented jet is the right one for Canada is a very debatable question, to state the obvious. Having a major daily paper set up the Libya situation as a platform for the government to demonstrate why it needs a certain kind of jet is not helpful to that debate.

Speaking of the case for the F-35, the U.S. General Accounting Office released a report on Tuesday, in connection with House Armed Services hearings on U.S. air tactical capabilities. The F-35 featured prominently in those hearings. The report is a new reminder of the escalating costs of the program to the U.S. The affordability of the plane to the U.S. and for allies is raised as an issue (p.5). The cost per plane as of 2010 is now up to $133 million (Appendix I) whereas the Harper government is adamantly insisting Canada's cost is $70-75 million per plane. Additionally, software delays and the need for 10,000 more design modifications by 2016 (p. 9) are cited as further issues.

The U.S. air force is also now predicting a 2018 initial operating capability date on the F-35A, the model Canada would get if the Harper government proposal went through. 2018. If that's the same for us, we would be cutting it close with the 2020 time frame for the phasing out of the CF-18s. Given the delay track record on the F-35, even that 2018 date would have to be pencilled in.

As for the Harper government's document dump yesterday on the price of their F-35 proposal, their credibility is sorely lacking at this point. Competent governance would see numbers presented and backed up in a process with integrity. They announced their proposed F-35 deal eight months ago, where have they been with proper, justified information? If there is classified material, handle it appropriately, trust MPs. But there they were, engaged in last minute dumping of 55 new documents on a committee when the government is under contempt klieg lights. Canadians deserve a process that treats seriously the largest purchase in Canadian military history. Shameful irresponsibility really.