Friday, November 18, 2011

Why are Tories so determined to defend the F-35?

Even Stephen Harper’s detractors will acknowledge – after a few libations and with no microphones in view – that the prime minister has generally shown a deft hand in foreign affairs. Indeed, along with economic management, this has become one of Harper’s greatest strengths.

So why, some in and around Ottawa wonder, is the Harper government so dead-set on championing the much-delayed, expensive and controversial F-35 fighter purchase, even as the project takes on ever more ballast?

Day after day in the House, opposition MPs pose pointed, scathing questions about why the government has “sole-sourced” this estimated $16-billion (including maintenance costs) purchase from U.S. aircraft maker Lockheed-Martin, with no competitive tender. Day after day a trio of ministers – up to and including the PM himself – deliver wan responses, looking unhappy as they do so.

Polls have shown that a majority of Canadians doubt whether ultra-high-tech new fighters should be a priority. The government’s three stock arguments in their defence – it was the Liberals who launched the program in the late 1990s, our pilots deserve the best, and the industrial spinoffs will be huge – look weak, in an era of looming budget cuts.

International support for the joint strike fighter has gone wobbly. The Turks are out, because of a disagreement over rights to the F-35’s critically important software source code. Australia is buying Boeing Super Hornets. Norway has delayed its purchase. The British are reviewing their purchase of more than 100 F-35B models – the JSF’s vertical landing variant. And there are rumblings that the Italians may soon do the same, if they can order any planes at all, given their debt woes.

As if all that weren’t bad enough, the U.S. military – on the hook for 2,443 F35s, at an estimated cost of $380-billion (US) – is under siege because of America’s own debt crisis. There is rampant speculation the Pentagon itself will soon be forced to curtail its order. Because pricing is based on economies of scale, that would change the game for every other member of the consortium, including Canada. As orders get reduced, the price per plane goes up.

Therefore, why so dogged? Here’s a partial answer. The growing turmoil, itself, is one reason why the Harper government remains grimly at the table.