Times Colonist

Harper likely to bail on the F-35 fighter deal

- MICHAEL DEN TANDT mdentandt@postmedia.com

There is nothing edifying about the sight of a minister flailing when he knows there’s blood in the water, and that some of it is bound to be his.

Even the few who are good at deflection develop a hunted, aggrieved look. They retreat and evade, repeating talking points they figure won’t get them into deeper trouble.

Such has been the case in the House this week as the associate minister of defence in charge of procuremen­t, Julian Fantino, faced renewed peppering from the opposition about the precarious state of the F-35 fighter-bomber procuremen­t. Fantino gamely offered the pro-forma nonanswer: This is the best fighter for the Canadian Forces and the government is determined to give the men and women in uniform the best technology possible to do their jobs. If only it were that simple. It’s hard to see how this albatross of an acquisitio­n, initiated by the Liberals in the late 1990s, could devolve into an even worse state politicall­y. The Conservati­ves fought an election in which their rivals did their best to disparage the purchase, and won. Polls show that Canadians, though leery of the F-35 project specifical­ly, generally approve of the Harper government’s rebuilding of the military. The Tories have earned some goodwill for re-investing in the Canadian Forces, and deservedly so.

That said, the government is in heavy weather with the F-35 now and, for reasons beyond Canadian control, the trouble is growing. The difficult but smart move would be for the PMO to stand tall, turn tail and order a redo, with an open, apolitical competitio­n, such as that held in the recent $35-billion naval ship procuremen­t.

Liberal leader Bob Rae has said the ship contract process set a new standard: He’s right. The F-35 process does not come close to measuring up. In fairness this is not one individual’s fault, but rather an accumulati­on of bad news that now threatens to reach critical mass, because of debt crises on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here’s the skinny on this plane: It will be beautiful and lethal, the finest fighter-bomber ever built, when it’s finally flying in air forces around the world. In time the bugs will be ironed out: Too much money has been invested already, mainly by the U.S. government, for there to be any other outcome. But the number of planes, and their cost, remains an open question; for Canada, anywhere between $75 million a plane and $150 million.

And there are other problems. Michael Gilmore, the senior Pentagon official in charge of weapons testing, now wants the test-flight program on the F-35 delayed because of concerns over pilot safety. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is poised to give the manufactur­er, Lockheed-martin, its latest accounting of what it thinks the F-35 should cost — and clearly, cuts are on the table.

America’s own F-35 program, roughly pegged at 2,400 planes for $380-plus billion, is simply too expensive for the debt-strapped U.S.

The program has already suffered a string of delays and cost overruns, prompting such key partners as Australia to mull buying other planes. What happens when the Pentagon itself is forced to delay or curtail developmen­t, due to defence budget cuts estimated at $1 trillion US over the next decade?

Ottawa’s commitment to this aircraft is at present just political. There is no signed contract, indeed there won’t be one for at least another three years or so. The ministers have time to go back to the drawing board if they wish to, with no penalty, and hold an open contest.

Here’s why they haven’t, so far: It’s not just about us. Because the price is tied to the number of planes ordered, any cancellati­on or delay boosts costs for everyone, which has a cascading effect. In sticking to its guns, Canada is attempting to be a reliable ally.

But here’s the kicker: The cascading effect is already upon us, due to economic problems elsewhere. How long can Canadian ministers be expected to strap themselves to this anvil before they cut it loose and pop their chutes?

Harper has often shown an ability to execute tactical retreats with lightning speed, if he feels he’s lost the high ground. Look for that to happen with the F-35, sooner rather than later, as the economic gloom deepens south of the border.

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