A fiery reminder.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to take off. An F-35 engine failed. The most advanced, most powerful engine ever conceived by mankind got a case of stage fright, ground its fan blades together and caught fire. On the verge of making its first foray into the public eye at this summer's Farnborough Air Show, the entire F-35 fleet was instead grounded, leaving red-faced officials with only a full-scale mock-up for the kiddies to have their picture taken in on opening day. It was yet another in a long series of embarrassments for the troubled fighter jet program.
Now the good folks at Lockheed Martin may ultimately have the last laugh, and if they do, more power to them as they've certainly picked a technical cliff to scale; a bare-handed, no-harness climb if ever there was one. But the fiery episode did bring back into the public eye the whole issue of the F-35, Canadian military procurement, the hubris and ineptitude of those in charge of said procurement, and the stewardship of Canada's military in general.
Back when Pistol Pete first started sounding like a sagely aerospace engineer in 2010 (and not the fact-challenged minister he was and is), The Plarper Government[TM] was still riding a wave of procurement promises and renewed hope that the armed forces would be made whole after years of neglect. Arctic patrol ships, search-and-rescue aircraft, helicopters, trucks, LAVs, supply ships and anything short of the Starship Enterprise was just around the corner. Add in MacKay's magic, perpetual motion jet engine and the sky seemed the limit.
Well, reality has a knack for slapping you in the face, with Harper and Company being slapped so much during the intervening years you'd think someone might get the message that all is not exactly as peachy as planned, or as promised. The ongoing plight of our veterans remains both unresolved and a stain that blights the patriotic bromides and renamed highways. Nary a promised ship, helicopter, plane or motive piece of mechanical equipment of any note has been added to the armed forces' inventory, yet many have been retired from service without replacement. Budgets have been cut to the point they make the "Decade of Darkness" seem like a time of plenty. There is no focused foreign policy to guide a vital and focused military policy. Word has it though that there will be some officers parading about in spanking new uniforms. Stay tuned.
With news that the F-35 is actually constrained by the laws of physics and not the whims of star-struck ministers who've spent too much time in a simulator, Canadians need to ask themselves not so much whether the aircraft is or will be a good one, but whether it's right for Canada, and whether the current government is the one to decide such a monumental expenditure or any other. Not long after the CANSEC 2014 conference, where competing interests from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Dassault, and the Euro-fighter consortium put their best and most hyperbolic feet forward in their marketing campaigns for billions in Canadian tax dollars, a sobering voice made a prescient, if somewhat obvious observation.
Michael Byers, a research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia, made waves with his report entitled "One Dead Pilot," pointing out that two engines tend to be better than one, if not for performance than for redundancy, sighting the failure rates of single-engine aircraft over the last few decades. But more telling in his report, with regards to the necessity of Arctic airspace patrol, he observed that, "With the search-and-rescue system in its current, near-broken state, a decision to purchase a single-engine fighter would almost inevitably result in the needless loss of Canadian pilots."
In short, it's not just an issue of what Canada's next fighter jet will be. It's the sad state of our military in general, our inability to do what Canadians want and expect, and the government that got us here. An engine fire is the least of our problems.
Michael Nickerson is a freelance writer and satirist based in Toronto. His website is www.NickersonOnline.com
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.