On target? Pushing the "reset button" on the F-35 does not mean the purchase is cancelled.
On the eve of a damning independent audit into the projected acquisition and lifetime operating costs, the Conservative government spin doctors put out a few calls to a few chosen reporters. The scoop they offered up (with no attributable source) was that, contrary to their previous unwavering support of the F-35 purchase, the Tories were now going to consider other options.
The headlines declared that the F-35 deal was scrapped and those critics who had been vocally opposed to the Joint Strike Fighter program rejoiced and heralded the decision.
Amidst all of the raucous commotion, the KPMG audit, which should have at the very least sounded the death knell of Peter MacKay's tenure as Minister of Defence, essentially fell on deaf ears.
In 2010, when MacKay first climbed into the cockpit of an F-35 during a $40,000 photo op to tell Canadians the government was committed to purchasing 65 Joint Strike Fighters, the price tag was set at $16 billion. This was divided into an acquisition cost of $9 billion with another $7 billion for service support over a projected 20-year operations life cycle.
Subsequent appraisals by both the auditor general and the Parliamentary Budget Officer forced DND to concede that the full cost might end up closer to $25 billion, but even that figure was challenged by opposition critics.
To clear the air, the KPMG independent audit was commissioned.
In reviewing their KPMG advance audit copy, even the most brazen of the Conservative party loyalists knew that once those numbers were made public their position would be indefensible.
Leaking word of the cancellation was a PR masterstroke as it took virtually all the sting out the KPMG finding that these planes would in fact cost upwards of $46 billion.
Whether or not the Conservatives had deliberately misled the public about the true cost or whether they were so incompetent as to be out by a factor of 300 per cent on their original estimates mattered not a whit to the average Canadian since they were already convinced the whole thing was scrapped anyway. In. fact, in a bizarre way, it actually made it seem like the Conservatives were acting responsibly.
However, once MacKay and Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose confronted the media, the word "cancel" was not uttered. Instead, Ambrose repeatedly used the catch phrase, "We have hit the reset button" on the F-35 purchase.
One cannot help but conjure up the image of Stephen Harper smiling as he pushes a big red "easy" button that somehow makes all your problems disappear. However, even those marketers who wrote the Staples TV commercials know that the "easy" button is pure make-believe.
Many of the vocal opponents to the F-35 purchase who were quick to fist pump the air in victory soon saw through the ruse. Pushing the reset button on the CF-18 Hornet replacement project will not accomplish anything as long as the original set of requirements remains unchanged. Those who have closely followed the F-35 saga will recall that the air force essentially selected the F-3.5 and then, as an afterthought, wrote up the requirements to match.
Like pushing the refresh button on your computer, the Conservative reset button will likely bring us right back to the same page. However, if indeed this temporary suspension of the F-35 purchase is to allow for a complete review of all possible options, then we need to begin with the basics.
The type of equipment in a nation's toolbox obviously helps, to dictate foreign policy and the role they play on the world stage. The Joint Strike Fighter is a stealth-capable attack aircraft designed to evade and destroy the air defence system of a sophisticated opponent. It is a "day one" first-strike weapon whose primary function is to engage ground targets with precision-guided munitions. It is not an air supremacy fighter such as the Eurofighter Typhoon or a fast-climbing interceptor such as the Saab Gripen. Those types of aircraft are employed primarily in the enforcement of air space sovereignty.
So before we start talking about cost per plane and service support expenses over three decades, Canadians should first begin the debate as to what role we want our future air force to play. Having only one tool--a sneak attack combat plane--doesn't exactly give us a lot of options.
Scott Taylor publisher