New fighter jets have no 'useful military role'

Of all the things Canadians want from their government, my guess is that new military fighter jets would probably rank close to last.

But new fighter jets are what we're getting. Despite the enduring popularity of peacekeeping among Canadians, the Harper government continues to ramp up war-oriented military spending, most recently with its announcement of plans to buy 65 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin.

At $16 billion -- and that's a conservative estimate; cost overruns are rampant with military contracts -- the jets promise to be the most expensive military acquisition in Canadian history.

What makes this purchase bizarre is how little use the jets will be, unless we're waging all-out war.

"It's hard to see any useful military role for the F-35," wrote Leonard Johnson, a retired major-general in the Canadian air force and former commandant of the National Defence College in Kingston. "The age of major inter-state war between developed nations has vanished, so why prepare for one?"

Now, some might consider Johnson's argument suspect; despite his impressive military credentials, he has a soft spot for peace.

Perhaps we should consult someone more resolutely committed to war -- like Defence Minister Peter MacKay. Yet even MacKay struggles to explain the utility of the jets.

Asked at a news conference last month for "specific examples of the uses of these aircraft," MacKay mostly focused on what a great recruiting device they make.

"[I]t helps a great deal, I can assure you, in recruiting, to have new gear, new equipment, that is state of the art," MacKay said. "That is a very important part of our regeneration of personnel and pilots in particular. So having that platform capacity is something that is of great importance to the continued growth of the Canadian Forces and the development of our pilots."

So we're spending $16 billion -- about $470 for every Canadian -- so we can have planes that are really attractive to pilots? Wouldn't it be a lot cheaper just to offer every prospective pilot a Porsche?

MacKay's answer is also striking in that he indicates that the ultimate purpose is to ensure "the continued growth of the Canadian Forces."

Why should the continued growth of the military be a goal in itself? Why would we even want an ever-bigger military?

As former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower famously warned, a massive military combined with a large arms industry forms a "military-industrial complex" that is likely to exert "unwarranted influence" over the country.

The F-35 purchase is being touted for its job creation benefits. Although the planes will be built in the U.S., with no buy-Canadian requirements, Canadian military contractors are expected to win lucrative contracts for parts.

But if job creation is the goal, why not invest directly in Canadian jobs building things we actually need - like public transit, clean energy and improved health-care and education systems?

Investing in the F-35 is at best a roundabout way to create jobs, and one that transforms Canada into a more war-oriented economy, where prosperity becomes tied to fighting wars.

With Canada's role in Afghanistan scheduled to end next year, our military expenditures should be dropping - and not a moment too soon, as the country struggles with recession and deficits.

But anyone who thinks that our Afghanistan exit might free up money for other Canadian priorities has obviously forgotten about our pressing need to lure pilots with shiny new equipment.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet.

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