Harper's $18-billion fighter jet misadventure

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The Harper government has just purchased $18-billion-worth of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Photo: Rennett Stowe/Flickr

The unilateral decision by the Harper Conservatives to spend $18 billion on the purchase and maintenance of new F-35 fighter jets is both wasteful and dangerous.

It is wasteful because our military does not need such extravagant and costly equipment. The arguments for such aircraft became obsolete with the end of the Cold War over 20 years ago.

That is one reason that the Tories have not even bothered to convene the House of Commons defence committee. Could it be that they are also afraid of having a public debate on one of the costliest military purchases in Canadian history?

Both the NDP and the Liberals have demanded that the defence committee reconvene as soon as possible.

The announcement was made on a Friday afternoon, when few people are paying attention to what goes on in Ottawa.

Nevertheless, a CBC non-scientific readers' poll taken after the announcement indicates that 70 per cent of the respondents oppose the government's decision to buy the 65 jets.

One basic question in response to this announcement is: Why should Canadians be forced to pay so much for this aircraft when the Harper government has not made a credible case that spending billions on these jets is the best way to equip our troops?

The men and women of our armed forces need a serious examination of the risks that they will face in the next decade or two. However, according to Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information in the U.S.:

"The history of multi-role fighters, even for single services, is terrible. They do nothing well. ... The F-35 never will be able to fulfill its mission...."

NDP MP Malcolm Allen said the jet was built to suit the needs of U.S. forces, not of our own troops. "We have to decide what it is they are going to do, and we have not done that." He added that "a proper analysis of Canada's defence needs has not been done in 15 years." 

In that time, Canada's de facto military strategy has been to get out of peacekeeping as much as possible. Steven Staples of ceasefire.ca notes that, "Canada currently supplies 168 personnel (62 military) to UN peacekeeping missions of all kinds." That puts Canada behind such military powerhouses as Ghana (2,559 personnel), and Zambia (467 personnel).

Instead, the Tories, and much of the military, prefer to focus on fighting wars alongside the United States, such as the current disaster in Afghanistan (as Linda McQuaig has documented in her book, Holding the Bully's Coat). The economic burden of that illegal occupation will exceed $20 billion, while the human cost is continuing to grow.

What's more, the Tories made an agreement to buy the jets from the giant American military contractor, Lockheed Martin, without inviting a single competing bid. Had they done so, the Conservatives might have been able to save taxpayers billions of dollars. That is not a very smart strategy if they are really concerned about reducing unnecessary government spending.

Ominously, Bill Sweetman of Aviation Week, who has written two books on the F-35, says that the costs of the fighter jet are bound to go even higher. 

When the government decides to spend billions of dollars on equipment that is both expensive and useless, the obvious question to ask is: "Who benefits?"

And if this waste of public resources wasn't bad enough, the Tories plan to spend about a half trillion dollars on the military in the next two decades.

Ironically, these foolish handouts to the U.S. and Canadian military-industrial complex will make Canadians less safe in the years to come.

That's because the biggest threats that we face are not from invading armies or fleets of enemy aircraft. We are in danger, above all, from the destruction of our environment: global warming, loss of farmland, water shortages, the decline of fisheries, and so on.

While the worst impacts are still to come, we are already paying a terrible price for ignoring environmental issues. For example, an estimated 700,000 Canadians will die over the next two decades because of illnesses caused by poor air quality, according to the Canadian Medical Association. That's an average of 35,000 people dying needlessly every year.

The costs of dirty air, in terms of treating the illnesses in hospital and visits to doctors, as well as indirect expenses for time off work, added up to $10 billion in 2008. The costs will rise to $250 billion by the year 2031, according to Dr. Brian Day, CMA president.

Harper has not only ignored such environmental dangers, but has actually resisted international efforts to protect the natural world. Canadian climate scientists William Rees (UBC) and Andrew Weaver (UVic) have declared that the Harper government is a bigger obstacle to reaching international environmental agreements than any other country, including the United States or China.

And just before last year's failed climate summit in Copenhagen, the British journalist George Monbiot wrote that he used to believe: "That the nation that has done most to sabotage a new climate change agreement was the United States. I was wrong. The real villain is Canada."

Harper even ridiculed the Kyoto Agreement on greenhouse gasses as "a socialist scheme." Such an ignorant statement shows how little Harper knows, or cares, about the real threats to our security.

The same shortsightedness that ignores our environmental crises also ignores all the other real threats to Canadians, such as inadequate funding for our medical system, a persistently high rate of child poverty, a lack of resources for education (as well as huge debt loads for post-secondary students), little support for family farms, an inadequate pension system -- the list is far too long.

(The federal government does, however, provide oil companies with over a billion dollars a year in subsidies.)

Indeed, the "No. 1 public health threat facing the people of Canada... is increasing economic inequality", according to Dennis Raphael, professor of health policy at York University in Toronto and editor of "Social Determinants of Health".

As inequality continues to increase, "the years of life lost in Canada due to the differences in wealth is close to the time lost from major killers such as cancer and heart disease" (CCPA "Monitor", Dec. 2007-Jan. 2008).

Most Canadians have different priorities than the minority Conservative government. Most of us believe that Canada needs less spending on armaments for imaginary threats, and more money for housing, education, medical care, environmental protection, job-training, day-care, and other vital social programs.

To take just one example, the federal government could re-allocate funding from useless fighter jets to helping local governments create adequate public transportation. Not only would such projects create tens of thousands of well-paying jobs and support local communities, it would go a long way towards reducing traffic congestion, greenhouse gasses, and the air pollution which is killing us.

We could also put more resources into developing a military whose primary mission would truly be as peacekeepers.

None of this will happen as long as the federal government puts the greed of the military industries, the oil corporations, and the economic interests United States, ahead of the needs of Canadians.

If the highest priority of any government is to protect its people, then the minority Harper regime has lost all legitimacy and must be defeated as soon as possible.

Above all, what Canada truly needs is for its citizens to make it clear that any party that wants our votes must listen to us and act in the interest of the majority of Canadians.

It's called, "democracy."

Peter G. Prontzos teaches political science at Langara College in Vancouver.


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