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What if the F-35 is the right plane, at the right time, for the right price?

As the matter of Canada acquiring the F-35 fighter has become an election campaign issue, we are reproducing below a five-part series which first appeared in the Vimy Report in the fall of 2014.   

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Introduction: What if the F-35 is the Right Plane, at the Right Time, for the Right Price?
Part One: Why Canada Needs An Air Force And Supersonic Fighters
Part Two: A New Generation Of Fighters
Part Three: The Joint Strike Fighter Program
Part Four: Replacing the CF-18
Part Five: The Cost Controversy

At some point, the government is going to announce whether it plans to proceed with the acquisition of the F-35 Lightning II to replace Canada’s aging fleet of supersonic fighters, the CF-18 Hornets. Some insiders believe the decision is finally going to be yes, though maybe only after the next general election.

When and if that happens, there will be a noisy uproar over the decision. The public will hear from “experts” who have always believed the F-35 was the wrong plane for Canada, from critics of the decision-making “process”, from partisans and media pundits arguing the plane is too costly for Canada, and from many who will tell pollsters they don’t know much about these things but from what they’ve heard they’re pretty sure Canada doesn’t need new fighter planes, maybe not even an air force.

But what if the decision is the right one? What if Canada is choosing exactly the plane it needs now? And what if we’re getting a good deal? If these are radical thoughts, it’s only because the shouting has discouraged exploring the merits of the choice.

The national debate over the F-35 has been quite awful, and everyone involved has been tarnished by it. The government has appeared needlessly on the defensive throughout, National Defence has looked shifty and confused despite generally competent handling of a difficult undertaking, the Parliamentary Budget Officer and the Auditor General missed opportunities to enlighten and re-balance debate on a controversial matter of public policy, political parties have been excessively partisan without regard for the larger interests of the country, and the media has had its usual sport with an issue about which it remains willfully uninformed.

The greatest failing has been that the debate has not dealt with the merits of the F-35 but with its costs, as if one of the wealthiest countries in the world might not be able to “afford” new jet fighters to defend itself. Critics have scared people by driving cost “estimates” into the stratosphere, a strategy which could only succeed because governments of every political persuasion have been able to convince Canadians there are no downsides to devoting a substantially lower portion of their spending on defence than their friends and allies do. Only when the truth cannot be hidden have governments seen the wisdom of moving quickly to increase defence spending. During the Afghanistan campaign, the defence budget doubled from $10 billion to almost $22 billion – and nobody argued this was going to bankrupt the country. Not many even noticed.

The five-part analysis which follows looks at why Canada needs high-performance fighters for its defence, why the F-35 is the only rational choice for replacing the CF-18, how a competition was held to make the selection, why Canada’s decision-making process was a sensible one, and why arguments about cost have been superficial and sometimes dishonest.

Continue to: Part One: Why Canada Needs An Air Force And Supersonic Fighters

Five Part Series:
Introduction: What if the F-35 is the Right Plane, at the Right Time, for the Right Price?
Part One: Why Canada Needs An Air Force And Supersonic Fighters
Part Two: A New Generation Of Fighters
Part Three: The Joint Strike Fighter Program
Part Four: Replacing the CF-18
Part Five: The Cost Controversy

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. During a 30-year career in the Canadian foreign service, he served in Tel Aviv, Moscow, at NATO, and in Washington where he was head of the political section. He can be reached at pchapin@rogers.com.

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