Defense News 03/21/2011
By DAVID PUGLIESE VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada’s proposed purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will be an issue in the upcoming federal election, a rare occasion when a defense matter has factored into political campaigns here, analysts said.
The ruling Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and various opposition parties have been gearing up for a potential election that could be announced in a matter of weeks.
The government has been running political advertisements attacking its opponents while highlighting its fiscal stewardship of the country. In January, the main opposition party, the Liberals, ran TV ads attacking the Harper government’s proposed purchase of the F-35 as too expensive and fiscally irresponsible.
The Liberals and the New Democratic Party, which also opposes the purchase, were provided with more ammunition March 10, when Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page concluded the F-35 acquisition would cost about 29 billion Canadian dollars ($28 billion), almost double the estimate claimed by Harper. That sparked claims in the House of Commons that the Conservatives were misleading the public about the true cost of the fighter aircraft.
“The stage is set for the F-35 to become an election issue,” said Steve Staples, president of the Rideau Institute and a high-profile critic of the purchase. “You have the opposition portraying this as a money issue, alleging the Conservatives are poor managers because of the [F-35’s] high costs and the Conservatives positioning themselves as taking care of the country’s security needs.” The last time that a defense issue played out at the polls, Staples said, was in 1993, when then-Liberal Party leader Jean Chrétien campaigned on canceling a 5 billion Canadian dollar Conservative government plan to buy maritime helicopters.
The acquisition came at a time when Canada’s deficit had grown significantly. Chrétien won the election and, as prime minister, followed through with his promise to cancel the helicopter purchase.
The Conservatives have suggested that Canadians could go to the polls sometime in May, but no date has been set.
However, they have acknowledged the F-35 will likely be an election issue. In November, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said as much when he complained that the Liberals were trying to scare the public about the F-35 deal, “ripping a page out of their playbook” from the 1993 election campaign involving the helicopter program.
“It very well could be an election issue,” MacKay said. “It’s a shame. I don’t want to see politics played out on the backs of the military, as we’ve seen in the past.” But opposition parties are accusing the Conservative government of playing politics by low-balling the actual purchase price of the F-35.
In July, the government announced it would buy 65 F-35s. It estimated the cost would be 9 billion Canadian dollars with another 5 billion to 7 billion Canadian dollars estimated for a 20-year support package.
But the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) report, “An Estimate of the Fiscal Impact of Canada’s Proposed Acquisition of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter,” called those figures into question.
Queen’s University professor Doug Bland, who helped with a peer review of the 65-page report, said there are many unknowns with the F-35.
“I don’t know how much these planes will cost, nor does the government or anybody else,” said Bland, the defense management studies chairman in the School of Policy Studies in Kingston, Ontario. “The PBO used mathematical models to estimate costs. But I generally think the PBO is right: These jets are going to cost more than the government originally estimated.” Bland said other issues — such as whether the F-35 was the right airplane to purchase, or whether a competitive bidding strategy was followed — weren’t considered by the PBO.
The report also prompted the Bloc Quebecois opposition party to withdraw its support for the F-35 deal. It had supported the purchase because it believed it could provide business for Quebec’s aerospace companies. But the Bloc, like the other two opposition parties, is now calling on the Harper government to cancel the acquisition.
“Such an explosion of astronomical costs is unacceptable,” said Claude Bachand, the party’s defense critic.
The PBO report also noted that Canada has not signed any binding contract for the acquisition. It is not under any legal obligation to proceed with the F-35 purchase, the report concluded.
The report was peer-reviewed by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Queen’s University.
But Laurie Hawn, MacKay’s parliamentary secretary, said the PBO did not properly compile the necessary figures, and the government stands by its earlier cost estimates.
The Liberal Party has vowed to freeze the deal, considered the largest military procurement in Canadian history, if it wins the election. It would instead hold a competition involving a number of aircraft.
The Conservatives have already launched their public relations campaign in support of the F-35, with the prime minister and cabinet ministers visiting aerospace firms to highlight the industrial benefits that will come from the aircraft’s purchase.
Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin’s general manager of F-35 program integration, said the first deliveries of F-35s to Canada are expected in 2017. Those will be a small number of training aircraft, and Canadian pilots will receive instruction on those in the U.S.
Burbage told Defense News that he believes the Canadian government is fully committed to the F-35 program, despite what party politics might play out.
Canada plans to purchase the conventional-takeoff-and-landing version of the F-35. Ë
U.S. AIR FORCE
Controversial Plan: Canada will buy 65 conventional-takeoff-and-landing F-35s, similar to the U.S. Air Force’s F-35A.