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Canada Peter MacKay: Liberal foot-dragging on F35s has cost us dearly

14:51  07 april  2022
14:51  07 april  2022 Source:   nationalpost.com

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Now we know that our Air Force pilots will be flying Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter aircraft sometime after 2025, 12 years after the Harper government announced its intention to buy the planes and 25 years after the Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien first signed on to the consortium to build this modern jet. He and subsequent governments, including the current, have invested approximately $613 million in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program to date. Canada was the last of the original JSF partners to commit to buying the aircraft and that has cost us in many tangible and intangible ways.

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Then-defence minister Peter MacKay gives the thumbs up from the cockpit of a Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter F-35 Lighting II on July 16, 2010 after announcing Canada would be purchasing some of the jets. © Andre Forget/Postmedia/File Then-defence minister Peter MacKay gives the thumbs up from the cockpit of a Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter F-35 Lighting II on July 16, 2010 after announcing Canada would be purchasing some of the jets.

Thankfully, the Liberals are now reversing their politically expedient position from the 2015 election to “never buy the F-35, because it doesn’t work, will never work, is too expensive and is not what the RCAF wants.” Those words, spoken by Justin Trudeau, have all been proven false and the inevitable decision to make the same choice as 17 other countries is welcome, but at what cost?

This is an old story of flip-flopping and incompetence from the Liberals and is a tiresome replay of their performance on issues like wage and price controls, the GST, free trade, the Sea King helicopter replacements, balanced budgets and more. The F-35 saga is just the most recent example.

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Billions of dollars have been spent on maintaining our aging fleet of CF-18 jets and adding more obsolete Australian aircraft to fill a “capability gap” that was entirely manufactured to serve Trudeau’s political ends. Most disheartening is the crushing blow it delivers to an already small but invaluable sector of Canadian society: those who serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and specifically our fighter pilots.

I have met and worked with a number of these extraordinary Canadians over the years. They are not shrinking violets, nor are they known to lack confidence. Yet this latest decade of deception has caused many of them to eject from the service. They have had enough, and don’t want to wait any longer while flying planes that are, in some cases, twice as old as they are. Recruiting and retention is an enormous challenge overall for the Canadian Armed Forces; these cynical partisan games only serve to exacerbate the problem.

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From a purely practical point of view, our ability to interoperate seamlessly in NORAD with the United States is declining and expensive investments in the modernization of its early warning system in the North are long overdue. We have seen a prolific increase in aggressive activity by our adversaries, coupled with the opening up of Arctic waters and increased marine navigability due to climate change. Sadly, our allies no longer trust us to be reliable contributors to NATO, Five Eyes and global security.

Our pilots have been forced to operate outdated or used equipment that is getting more challenging to maintain. Pilots have also left the RCAF in droves, causing a critical shortage that will be very expensive to fill. These are not off-the-shelf aircraft and those who fly them are a rare breed.

The Liberal attacks on the F-35 were relentless, untruthful and politically opportunistic. Like all very advanced aircraft, the F-35 has had development issues, nearly all of which have been, or are being, addressed. We will buy the conventional model, not the marine or vertical takeoff variants that were far more problematic.

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Certainly, the previous government, of which I was a part, should have been more resolute in ensuring the operational future of the RCAF by weathering the criticism and sticking to its guns. Yet public opinion is a weighty consideration and we blinked.

The Liberals then exploited the opportunity with the assistance of some co-operative members of the public service and press. This is neither the time, nor the space, to re-litigate those decisions, but suffice it to say, with the benefit of hindsight, we should have insisted that the F-35 was the right aircraft for Canada.

All of this retrospective juxtaposed to last week’s announcement speaks to a prime minister who’s quite prepared to play fast and loose with facts, other people’s money and welfare, while making every effort to find someone else to blame.

Canada needs a military that is capable of meeting the demands posed by today’s volatile world, as the horrific invasion of Ukraine, perpetrated by the despot Vladimir Putin, has demonstrated. We were able to procure the equipment we required quite quickly in Afghanistan, with the timely acquisition of necessary capabilities such as the C-17, C-130J (heavy lift planes), Chinook helicopters, Leopard 2 Main Battle Tanks, M-777 artillery, advanced drones, upgraded light armoured vehicles, personal protective equipment and more. All of this brought us closer to the NATO target of spending the equivalent of two per cent of GDP on defence than we had been since the early 1990s.

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That we currently cling tenaciously to the bottom rung when it comes to defence spending among our allies is a national embarrassment and probably even worse than we know, given the creative calculus used to even come up with the 1.39 per cent the government claims we currently spend. In order to have a military that is capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century and move more in line with our allies, we will need a much more robust defence procurement system.

The recent events in Ukraine, the potential for future conflicts with China and the threats to our sovereignty in the Arctic offer clear lessons in the threat and assessment and the need to stay ready. Russian activity in the North alone should be cause for immediate action. Only time and this week’s budget will tell if the Liberal-NDP coalition will learn such lessons, however.

The final contract for our 88 F-35s will be closely scrutinized, as it should be, but Canadians should be aware that, beyond the cost of acquisition, the billions of dollars that will be spent on the planes during their time in service will go toward supporting future operations.

The full life cycle cost calculus, which was used to skewer the previous government, will take the $19-billion estimate announced by the Liberals closer to $100 billion, if calculated the same way as before. At best, it’s an educated guess pushing out costs associated with maintenance, pilot training, replacement parts, infrastructure needs and so on. One factor alone demonstrating the challenge is that no one knows what the cost of fuel will be over the next 40 years.

Let’s save our final thoughts for our pilots who strap in every day and take to the skies in an inherently hazardous occupation to protect Canadians and to exercise Canadian sovereignty and commitments to international security. We need them. We need more of them.

We owe it to them and their families to give them the best chance to overcome the risks associated with their critical missions undertaken on our behalf and to survive, succeed and come home safely at the end of the day. That is what is at stake. To borrow a phrase: never have so few waited so long to receive so little at a cost of so much.

National Post

Peter MacKay served as Canada’s defence minister from 2007-2013.

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