Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Harper's support for F-35 boondoggle bolstered by Mulcair's equivocation

| September 22, 2015
Harper's support for F-35 boondoggle bolstered by Mulcair's equivocation

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I suppose a hotel in the desert, just down the block from the address where the scientists got off the bus to check in with the Manhattan Project starting in 1942, is an appropriate enough spot to muse about sophisticated weapons systems.

Lends a certain historical frisson, if not fission, to the discussion, don't you think?

I don't know what astounds me more, that Canada is still considering buying a $46-billion-plus fleet of F-35 "strike fighter" aircraft, a flying dog if ever there was one, or that we were secretly planning a bid on a rebranded helicopter carrier built to Russian specifications, for another couple of billion free-floating Canadian Loonies once the rust and dust have settled.

About these two completely ridiculous ideas, the first question we need to ask is "what for?"

Then there is the troubling spectacle of Thomas Mulcair, whose title at the moment is supposedly leader of the New Democratic Party, siding with Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to assail Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for stating the self-evident truth that the F-35 scheme is a stupendous waste of money and therefore deserves to go over the side immediately.

On any basis, the F-35 is the wrong military aircraft for Canada to buy. Arguably, it's wrong strategically, since its main advantage according to its manufacturer is its supposed stealth capability, which makes it a great plane for regime change in tin-pot Third World dictatorships that only have aircraft older than, oh, 1970s vintage Soviet-built MIGs.

I suppose you could make a case that you could use F-35s to knock off a disreputable dictatorship like, say, the one in Syria...if only the Syrians weren't being defended by a fleet of modern SU-27 fighter jets flown by their Russian friends which, not to be too gentle about it, could almost certainly eat any F-35 we bought at $600 million a pop for breakfast.

But if you want to make that case -- and be my guest -- there's still the problem that the F-35 is, to put it in layperson's terms, a really, really terrible aircraft. And that doesn't include the aesthetic fact that in profile, it looks like a flying brick with one pointy end.

If you doubt me, just use your favourite search engine. Just now I searched "What's wrong with the F-35?" on Google and received 363 million responses! I'm not making that up. Try it yourself.

This is a plane, Reuters reports, that "simply doesn't work very well." Last summer the U.S. Air Force grounded early versions because they were catching fire just sitting on the tarmac. The new jet, say the experts, "can't turn, can't climb, can't run."

Even the U.S. Defense Department doesn't seem to really want this white flying elephant -- it's trimming its orders while it wishes the wretched aircraft would fly away. This, obviously, is going to make the per-unit cost go up so that, if we buy it, $44 million will seem like a bargain.

Oh, and that radar-evading stealth technology? It doesn't work against radar the Chinese and the Syrians' Russian friends have been developing that is designed to light up all stealth aircraft like the proverbial Christmas tree. So, also not included in the Canadian price tag will be the cost of jamming aircraft to make the slow, clumsy expensive F-35s invisible again, sort of.

And then there's the matter of the Canadian dollar being worth 75 cents USD and falling, thanks to Mr. Harper's "energy superpower" strategy. This, presumably, will add another $11.5 billion to the cost of the project, raising it close to $60 billion.

Excuse me, Messrs. Harper and Mulcair? All this for a plane that doesn't work properly? Gee, it sure sounds as if the principal purpose of this aircraft, perhaps the only purpose, is to keep its manufacturer, Lockheed-Martin, profitably in the air!

Turning to the French-built Mistral-class helicopter carriers, they sound like more of a bargain...than the F-35s.Again, though, we need to ponder the "what for?" question again.

The French built three of these helicopter carriers for themselves and were nearing completion of two more for the Russian Navy when the Ukraine crisis heated up last year with the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Amid the hoo-haw that followed, the French reneged on the deal and ended up facing repayment of $1.5 billion to the Russians -- which the French lower house agreed to this month, and the French Senate will consider in a few days.

With the French now anxious to recoup the losses they face, an urgent effort to find a likely buyer for the ships was launched -- and Canada was said to be high on the list until the news of the secret dealings leaked in the middle of an election campaign.

Officially designated "amphibious assault ships" (it's the assaults, not the ships, that are supposed to be amphibious, by the way) the Mistral-class carriers are good for doing things like invading Third World countries, which the French have done a lot of since the Second World War.

But what use would Canada have for such a warship? Presumably Mr. Harper would like Canadian troops to be in the thick of an invasion or two -- but where?

Syria? Crimea? Both are defended by capable Russian troops as it now happens, so, the prime minister's fevered fantasies notwithstanding, neither now seems like a scenario likely of much success.

You could make a case that the Mistrals could also be useful for humanitarian missions, such as providing aid in disasters abroad and rescuing Canadian citizens from war zones, but it is likely there are much cheaper ways to accomplish such goals.

Never mind the cost of refitting the ships to, as they say, "come up to Canadian military standards," whatever that means, the price of additional helicopters and the training of troops in amphibious assaults for what can only be called strategically unclear objectives will also be high.

Canada needs armed forces, and our armed forces need appropriate equipment for the missions Canadian soldiers, sailors and flyers are likely to face. On the face of it, it seems obvious our forces need modern transport aircraft and helicopters, effective ground-support fighters, coastal patrol vessels, new frigates or destroyers able to sail far from home, and Arctic-capable icebreakers.

Perhaps we could even use a helicopter carrier, although the case is far from being made and the cost is likely prohibitive.

However, without question -- and Mr. Mulcair in particular should take note at this delicate juncture, when Canadians are deciding how to vote to get rid of the deplorable Harper government -- we do not need the most-expensive and possibly least capable military aircraft ever to take to the air (when it doesn't spontaneously combust on the runway first).

Mr. Mulcair and the prime minister may have faith in the public tendering process. Given that the F-35 boondoggle has gotten this far, the Canadian public should not.

What's next? Vertical takeoff F-35s for the Mistral? Why not? Lockheed-Martin makes one for the Marine Corps, after all! I'm not making that up.

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