Hill Times

The Hill Times: There’s no realistic alternative to the F-35s

By April 16, 2012March 18th, 2020No Comments

In my latest column for The Hill Times, I discuss why there is no realistic alternative to the F-35s and that the government should have the courage to say so and defend the price tag that goes with it. The full column is below.

There’s no realistic alternative to the F-35s

By Brian Lee Crowley, The Hill Times, April 16, 2012

At last – a defence debate Canadians can get excited about. The government has been caught understating the cost of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter. We’ve been misled, say the auditor general and the Parliamentary budget officer. Outrage is the order of the day.

Or not. For every expert in high dudgeon because the cost of the planes should be projected over 36 years, not 20, or the cost should include pilots’ salaries and a lot of money being spent regardless of what kind of plane we have, there are just as many who will say that it has been normal practice not to state these things in this way.

Probably on balance the government engaged in some sharp practice and deserves to have its knuckles rapped, but then it is highly likely that all governments that have engaged in any kind of major military procurement deserve the same. Many blanch when presented with the full bill for the military preparedness that is a sine qua non of sovereignty and the protection of national interests at home and abroad.

The government’s real failing, then, has been its unwillingness to say to Canadians what the real cost is of being a serious country in a dangerous and uncertain world. That would be a defence debate worth getting excited about.

In that debate, question No. 1 would be how a middle power like Canada can protect its sovereignty and its interests from threats without impoverishing itself? The answer is by being part of a military alliance based on shared interests and values, like democracy, the rule of law, justice, and respect for human rights.

That means we collaborate with the American-led Western alliance. No serious person would suggest that we could throw our lot in with, say, China or Russia, the only alternatives worth mentioning.

Membership has its privileges, but also its costs. If we expect our allies to come to our aid if attacked, we must reciprocate. That means government has a double task. Not only must it take the measures necessary to keep the country safe and free, but it must show the alliance that it can shoulder a reasonable share of collective defence, based on alliance-wide assessments of international threats and unpredictable contingencies (Libya anyone?).

If you’re with me so far, the next question is, in such an alliance, what constraints am I under in buying military equipment like fighter jets? Answer: the benefits to everyone are huge if everybody has roughly the same equipment. When Sweden sent some of its Gripen fighters to participate in the Libyan campaign, they ended up grounded in Italy because American jets used an incompatible fuel.

Under “interoperability” the same fuels, spare parts, airborne fuelling technologies, weaponry, and signalling distinguishing friend from foe, all are simply given. Costs are lowered by spreading them across all allies; our own servicemen and women are made safer and more effective.

Now having eliminated most of the alternative fighter jets worldwide for reasons of alliance management and interoperability, we come to a crucial question: of those remaining, how do you choose one?

Based on the debate around the F-35s, one might conclude that everyone from the auditor general, the Parliamentary budget officer, the opposition and most newspaper editorialists, the answer is cost. We should hold an open competition and choose the cheapest fighter good enough to do the job.



We are on the cusp of a great change in fighter jet technology. The old standard, so-called fourth generation, still has some life in it, but it will soon be in its dotage. Fifth generation jets have information technology, weaponry, stealth capabilities and other overwhelming advantages. Yes, not all the bugs have been worked out, but they will be. The stakes are simply too high.

America is getting out of the fourth generation business and putting all its eggs in the F-35 basket. It will not fail to solve the plane’s problems.

European manufacturers are stumbling in the technology race; they will not make the shift to fifth generation. That means a future with only three cutting edge fifth generation planes: the American, the Russian and eventually the Chinese.

Final question: if in coming decades, God forbid, Canada needs to fly combat missions against enemies with the latest technology, do we intend to win, or to send our pilots into combat with outdated equipment that was “good enough” years ago when we bought them in a time of technological ferment?

You have now gone through the thought process that led most of our allies, the Canadian military, and governments, both Liberal and Tory, to conclude that there is no realistic alternative to the F-35. They are right and the government should have the courage to say so and defend the price tag that goes with it.

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.


The Hill Times