Pundits’ Platform: the military

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Experts debate Canada's role in world

Canada’s fighter jet debate is part of a bigger question on what we want to do with Canada’s military, say defence analysts.

The Conservatives have said they would go through with purchase of about 65 F-35 fighter jets to replace Canada’s old CF-18s for about $17.6 billion. Others have criticized the purchase for being sole-sourced and too expensive — the Parliamentary Budget Officer has pegged the cost of the jets at about $29.3 billion.

The NDP have pledged to review the purchase, while the Liberals plan to cancel it and hold an open bid. The Green Party does not specifically address the jets in its platform but plans to reduce military spending to 2005 levels and reorient it towards peacekeeping.

How about them jets?

The F-35 is a stealth fighter jet being developed by the United States and other nations, notes Jim Fergusson, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, who supports buying the jets. Canada got involved with the development program about 10 years ago.

National Defence has pegged the cost of each jet, plus maintenance, at $75 million. The Parliamentary Budget Officer says it will probably be $128 million, not including maintenance. The U.S. Department of Defence has said it could cost $151 million.

We won’t know the true price until the jet hits mass production, notes Graham Warwick, the senior technology editor of Aviation Week in Washington, D.C., although the Department of Defence probably has the best guess. “It really is a matter of whom you believe,” he says. The F-35 isn’t cheap, he continues, but is comparable in price to other modern fighters.

Canada has agreed to buy the F-35 without test-driving it against other jets on the market as it usually would, notes Steven Staples, president of the Rideau Institute, and without the investment guarantees normally required by Industry Canada. “We could be spending $30 billion or more for our aircraft without any guarantee that even one penny will be invested here in Canada.”

There’s no guarantee that Canadian companies would get contracts for the jets once they hit production, Warwick says, but since they’ve out-competed others for development contracts so far, they probably would. “The only uncertainty is how many airplanes will be built.” The U.S. alone would likely buy at least 1,500, he says.

The most likely alternative to the F-35 for Canada would be the F/A-18 Super Hornet, Warwick says, which is still on the market. The F-35 isn’t as good in a dogfight as an F/A-18, Warwick says, but Canada doesn’t have any air threats to worry about — aside from a hijacked jet liner.

“The real issue is what is the value to the Canadian air force of having a stealthy airplane,” he says. Stealth would let Canada take part in the first few hours of a conflict when air defences are still active, instead of waiting for them to be taken out.

Canada’s jets see action every decade or so in places like Libya and Kosovo, says Walter Dorn, professor of defence studies at the Royal Military College of Canada — places where they are a minor player. Today’s conflicts require precision strikes and ground support, he says — jobs for surveillance craft and helicopters, not fast jets.

A fleet of CP-140 Auroras (a prop-driven plane now used by the Canadian Forces) would be far cheaper than the F-35s, Dorn says, and would be more useful for search-and-rescue and surveillance. “We can make a contribution every year instead of once a decade if we had a fleet of aircraft like the Auroras” plus attack helicopters, he says.

Peace or war?

Canada should place more emphasis on UN peacekeeping missions and domestic defence, say Dorn and Staples. “We have well-equipped, well-trained and intelligent military personnel who can adapt well to the cultural sensitivities of peace operations,” Dorn says.

And we’ve no shortage of missions to choose from, he adds: there are about 82,144 troops deployed on 14 UN peacekeeping missions today. Canada used to have some 3,300 troops on UN missions; as of March, we’re down to 23. Most of those troops have instead gone to NATO-led missions in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

The Conservatives are moving away from peacekeeping, Dorn says, citing their Canada First defence strategy, and that’s short-sighted. “In the long run, a more stable world is in Canada’s best interests.”

He and Staples called for Canada to get its troops back on peacekeeping missions.

But most of today’s missions are in Africa, Fergusson says, and the African Union wants financial and logistical support, not foreign boots on the ground. “The numbers are misleading entirely.” Canada is supporting peacekeeping, he says — just not with troops.

Peacekeeping and the jet issue are matters of discretion for Canada, Fergusson says. We don’t need fighter jets to be peacekeepers — we could send ground troops or do surveillance — but it would limit what we could contribute to a mission. “What kind of commitment does Canada want to make?”

Pundits’ Platform

Got an issue for our experts? Send it to kma@stalbert.greatwest.ca, and it might show up in a future column.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.