Shiny, innit?1 Nevertheless, the F-35 is one of ~36 reasons to not vote Conservative in the 2011 Canadian general election, and the first post in my daily series.

At least part of each item will involve me asserting some kind of authority on the topic, in order to make you receptive to what I say. Sometimes that will be a stretch; in this case, it's not. I have been a fighter jet nerd2 since I was a kid; this led me to join Air Cadets while in junior high, earn my pilot's license, briefly consider joining the Canadian Forces, and eventually study aerospace engineering for about six years. I have seen Top Gun about a dozen times, etc.

Viz., I like planes.

Yesterday I linked to the history of Canada's involvement in the procurement process. As it stands, the Conservatives have committed to buying 65 jets as replacements for our current CF-18s. The Parliamentary Budget Officer3 has estimated the total cost of ownership to be $29.3 billion.

The issue of what the "real" price is, and who should have told whom about it when, is important, but I'll deal with that in the future. Let's just focus on the purchase itself.

Here are some relevant policy questions, from broad to specific:

  1. What is Canada's role in the world?
  2. What threats, if any, does it face?
  3. To fulfill #1 and address #2, is military action required?
  4. What kind?
  5. What military capability would we need, cost being no object?
  6. What equipment is necessary to support that capability?
  7. How much (given our other priorities), are we willing to pay for it?

The answers that would make the purchase a clear good idea are roughly:

  1. Do the same kinds of things the U.S. does.
  2. People coming to attack us with things that can be stopped using air superiority.
  3. Yes, inevitably.
  4. Air combat, close air support, or bombing.
  5. An air command capable of performing the above tasks.
  6. Manned jet aircraft.
  7. ~$30 billion.

These are either weak or highly reductive.

On defence (#2), obviously not. The Cold War is over; there are no longer Soviets eager to bring death to us over the pole.4 Even were valuable resources discovered on the Arctic seafloor—now sadly accessible in the summer—there would be intensive diplomatic and trade disputes, but no war, nor any need for deterrence in our northern airspace. On this matter good points are raised about the value of unmanned aircraft for surveillance and the risks of flying a single-engine jet in remote areas.5 These are valid; but air superiority in the north is still of limited value.

In terms of action abroad, I can't imagine a situation where we would act without the blessing of both the UN Security Council and NATO, as in Libya. In such cases we will always act with allies who happily spend lots of their money on significant jet air power. Good for them. There is no requirement that our participation in joint military action be in-kind. My understanding is that the Canadian Forces are renowned for the high calibre of their training; we can certainly supply more than our share of talented infantry, artillery, airlift, naval support and commanders.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the real air power story is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). These raise interesting questions about autonomy, but they are certainly cheaper by orders of magnitude and in some senses perform better than manned aircraft.6

Finally, on cost. The best figure I can find on the CF-18 procurement was $2.4b in 1977 dollars, which is roughly $8.4b today, or only a quarter of the F-35 price (for twice as many aircraft). This "replacement" would, perhaps, be the largest defence procurement in Canadian history; and yet there is no discussion happening on the above questions. Nor is anyone advancing those shaky intermediate answers, trying to provide an alternate justification,7 or claiming that we can't address the many needs of the Canadian Forces with anything less than $29.3b.

It's reasonable to expect that a new Conservative government would interpret their mandate as one to go ahead with the purchase; that's one reason to not elect one on May 2.

Tomorrow: Absousfian Abdelrazik

Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

  1. I realize that Canada would not be buying the STOVL variant. The video is not an attempt to mislead on this point. 

  2. I am several kinds of nerd. 

  3. Kevin Page gets an entire post to himself, later. 

  4. One wonders how few in the USSR ever were eager. 

  5. The CF-18 has two; if a goose flies into one, you limp home on the other. 

  6. The U.S.'s perennial problems with civilian deaths in Pakistan may suggest that even precision air strikes are too blunt an instrument for dealing with terrorists; but so-called collateral damage can be a problem even with human pilots

  7. For example, economics; Canadian firms might help build the jets we buy, yes. But is buying an already-designed American military aircraft the best way to stimulate our aircraft industry? Why is it a better choice than supporting new, domestic, civil aircraft? 


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