The F-35 continues to haunt the PM

Published Aug. 11, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record

Somewhere in Ottawa, unknown to the outside world, there is a black hole — a secret place where the government consigns toxic ideas, ideas that it dares not implement, yet cannot bring itself to kill.

The F-35 fighter jet is one such idea. The Harper government has been grappling with it ever since it took office in 2006. It has heard from experts that the super-sophisticated F-35 is not the right plane; that it does not suit Canada’s modest military requirements; that its single engine makes it too dangerous for patrols across the country’s vast distances; and that its humongous cost — $45 billion or more for 65 aircraft — puts it well beyond the reach of the budget-conscious Conservatives.

Somehow the F-35 has managed to survive on the government’s to-do list, never categorically endorsed, but also never firmly rejected. This June, it surfaced on the cabinet’s agenda for a decision. To his credit, the prime minister removed the item from the agenda, ostensibly to give ministers more time to weigh the implications. So the F-35 went back into that black hole.
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One can hope that its time there will be usefully spent. The question of whether Canada should buy any military aircraft without an open competition among manufacturers is a long-standing issue. There have also been some recent developments to be considered. Safety is one. On the eve of the July 4 holiday, the Pentagon announced it was grounding its entire fleet of new F-35s following an engine fire during trials in Florida. It decided it would be too dangerous to fly the F-35s across the Atlantic to debut at two air shows in Britain, the Royal International Air Tattoo and the Farnborough International Airshow. Those appearances were cancelled.

Critics in the United States keep hammering away at the cost. The Pentagon plans to purchase 2,443 copies of the F-35 at an all-in cost (including operating costs over the lifetime of the aircraft) of something in excess of $1 trillion.

To the critics, it’s a question of spending priorities. Eliminate homelessness? The F-35 expenditure would be enough, one report calculated, to buy every homeless person in the United States a $664,000 house.

Food for the poor? If the money were directed to the U.S. National School Lunch Program, it would pay for nutritious lunches for all 55 million students enrolled in elementary school in country, not just next year, but for the next decade. Or to look at it another away, the money could fund UN peacekeeping operations at their current level for 46 years.

Logic and priorities aside, there is no chance that the United States will abandon the F-35 program. It is too far in to back out, having already spent $298 billion in taxpayer funds. What’s more, the F-35 is more than a weapons-acquisition program for Washington. It is a massive job-creation scheme, extending into almost every corner of the United States. It’s a huge pork barrel. Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer, has hired suppliers and subcontractors in no fewer than 45 states, meaning virtually every senator and congress person has a vested interest in keeping the aircraft program alive.

Like other countries that have been supporting the F-35, Canada’s aeronautical sector has a slice of the jobs. The slice would presumably grow if Canada proceeds with the purchase.

For a government focused on job creation and economic growth — and facing a general election next fall — those highly paid jobs are an important consideration. Against them, the Tories must weigh arguments that Canada doesn’t really need F-35s to do what they are meant to do — support ground forces in combat zones; that the requirements of continental defence could be better served by twin-engine aircraft; and that the obscene price of $45 billion or more would devour an inordinate share of the national budget.

The F-35 would be a hard sell on the hustings, which is why it may remain in the black hole for quite some time.

Does Canada really need fighter jets?

Published June 30, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

“Canada does not need fighter aircraft! Buying them would waste upward of $45-billion.” – C.R. (Buzz) Nixon, former deputy minister of national defence, letter to the Globe and Mail, June 27, 2014.

Someone in the addled world of Ottawa should pay heed to Buzz Nixon. He knows whereof he speaks, having been the deputy defence minister the last time the government went shopping for fighter aircraft. It was on Nixon’s watch that the government of the day (Trudeau Liberal) decided in 1977 that it had to replace Canada’s aging war planes — the single-engine CF-104 Starfighter, based in Europe with NATO (and known among pilots, unfondly, as “The Widowmaker”) and the twin-engine CF-101 Voodoo, based in Canada and assigned to continental defence under the NORAD umbrella.

The policy-makers of Nixon’s day wanted several things. They wanted one aircraft to replace both the Starfighter and the Voodoo; that would help to keep the price and operating costs down. They wanted an off-the-shelf model with proven capability. They wanted an aircraft with two engines for the sake of reliability and pilot safety on long-distance patrols across the North and over the oceans off our coasts.
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With a budget of roughly $2.4 billion, Nixon’s people went shopping for 130 to 150 new fighters. They organized a competition. Six aircraft makers from the United States and Europe made pitches, offering a total of seven models. By 1978 (things moved more quickly in those days), the government had a short list of three aircraft from which it selected the McDonnell Douglas Hornet, which became the CF-18. It ended up buying 138 of them for $4 billion (prices in the military sector have a quicksilver quality); that works out to about $9 billion in today’s dollars.

Fast forward a generation. The CF-18, which proved to be an excellent choice, is nearing the end of its service life. Since it came to office in 2006, the Harper government has been stewing over a replacement.

It doesn’t know what it wants. Not having a thought-out defence policy, it doesn’t know what sort of military aircraft Canada may need for the future. It doesn’t even know, as Buzz Nixon suggests, whether Canada needs fighter aircraft at all.

Common sense suggests that the policy come first, then a determination of the need — if any — for fighter aircraft, then a competition be held to select the aircraft that would best serve the policy objectives. Not knowing their own mind, the Harper Conservatives listened to all the vested interests who whispered (or shouted) into their ear that Canada not only needed new fighter aircraft, but it needed the most sophisticated and expensive warplane in history.

That would be the F-35 Lightning, a single-engine stealth fighter by Lockheed Martin in the United States. It was the choice of the U.S. administration and of what former president Dwight Eisenhower once denounced as the powerful “military-industrial complex” in that in country, which also operates as a potent lobby in Canada.

The Harper government listened and agreed to buy 65 F-35s for a price that it told Canadians would be $16 billion. There were two problems. At the time, the F-35 did not yet exist; the evolution from artist’s concept to fighting machine would be fraught with delays, production problems, performance issues — and wild price inflation (to $45 billion in Buzz Nixon’s informed estimate).

Two years ago, the Tories ordered a review of its F-35 commitment. That review apparently led right back to the F-35, without any competition to confirm the wisdom of the choice. It was reported last week, however, that the prime minister has removed the fighter aircraft decision from the cabinet agenda in order to give ministers more time to digest information and to think about it.

Theirs could be a watershed decision for the country, especially if they address two fundamental questions. First, does Canada really need fighter aircraft? Second, aren’t there much better uses for $45 billion?

Putin gives Obama a lifeline over ‘red line’

Published Sep. 18, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Just when it appeared that U.S. President Barack Obama had painted himself into an inescapable corner over Syria’s chemical weapons use, an impromptu comment by Secretary of State John Kerry was picked up by the Russians to hand him a lifeline out of the mess that he had created with his indecisiveness.

One obvious lesson is that the American president should not specify red lines unless he fully plans to act upon them. This has clear implications for Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, where Obama has also warned of red lines.

On the matter of Syria’s sarin nerve gas and other chemical weapons, estimated to amount to some thousand tons in total, authorities will be unable to verify their complete whereabouts without Bashar Assad’s full compliance.

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Indifference in the face of atrocity

Published Sep. 7, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Some 30 years ago in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, when former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger was asked who he supported, his answer was “both sides.”

It was perhaps an unnecessarily lighthearted response to a serious matter, but it’s one that might draw a comparison by some to the current Syrian civil war.

Strategically, there is perhaps no better short-term outcome for the United States than an ongoing conflict between Bashar Assad and his Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah supporters and the rebel Free Syrian Army, including the al-Qaida-inspired al Nusra front. This thinking challenges the old argument that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and suggests that both sides remain enemies of American and Western interests.

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Obama would be wise to reconsider course on Syria

Published Sep. 3, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

The late Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defence under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — in the days of the Vietnam War — learned a lot about the statecraft of warfare. Among the 11 most important lessons he said he learned was this: be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.

What he meant was that before embarking on a military adventure, a wise leader will take the precaution of consulting his allies. If like-minded nations are not willing to join the war effort, the smart leader will reconsider his course. There may be very good reasons not to proceed.

McNamara’s 11 lessons are set out in The Fog of War, an extended interview with filmmaker Errol Morris, which won the 2003 Academy Award for best documentary feature. Although McNamara was talking about Vietnam, his advice could — and should — have been applied to Iraq (the war began in 2003), and it is certainly relevant to today’s confrontation with Syria.

In McNamara’s view, the United States — never understanding Vietnam’s history or people — made a series of mistakes, beginning with the decision to proceed with precious little international support. Aside from South Vietnam itself, just Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines joined the ill-fated U.S. effort.
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In the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. was joined by the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland (with a token force of 194). Such staunch allies as France, Germany, New Zealand and Canada refused to get involved; one of Jean Chrétien’s proudest moments as prime minister came when he said “no” to president George W. Bush’s request that Canada join “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to disarm Saddam Hussein of his alleged store of weapons of mass destruction. The war dragged on for eight years and claimed the lives of 4,500 Americans and many times that number of Iraqis.

Fast forward to the summer of 2013, and we see a disconcertingly similar scenario. In place of Iraq, read Syria; in place of Saddam Hussein, read Bashar Assad (the Syrian president and Middle East villain of the hour); in place of weapons of mass destruction, read chemical weapons; in place of George W. Bush, read Barack Obama.

Obama wants very much to attack the Syrian regime and teach Bashar Assad a lesson through the use of drone aircraft and cruise missiles. No boots on the ground, but isn’t that what they said at the outset in Vietnam?

If McNamara were still alive, he would advise Obama to re-examine his reasoning, by checking out the nations willing to line up behind him. He won’t see many. He may be able to cobble together a coalition with France and Syria’s neighbour, Turkey, but that’s likely to be about all. He cannot get international support through the United Nations Security Council as long as Russia is Syria’s patron and weapons supplier.

Obama looked to the United Kingdom, but when Prime Minister David Cameron put the proposition to Parliament last week, his coalition government lost the vote. There was a sense at Westminster that Britain had been sold a bill of goods 10 years ago — no weapons of mass destruction being found in Iraq — and it would be unwise to embrace another American adventure. Cameron wisely said he would accept Parliament’s verdict. Back-peddling, Obama now says he will seek the authorization of both houses of Congress before embarking on military intervention in Syria.

McNamara would have approved. The delay will give time for cooler heads to prevail, to seek ways to address Syria and the issue of chemical weapons short of embarking on another Iraq-style war.

After speaking to Obama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he agreed with the president on the need for a firm response, adding that while his government had no present plans for a military mission, Canada would support its allies who choose to use force. What form that “support” might take, we don’t know. What we do know is that Harper does not intend to consult Parliament.

No surprise there.

The politics of victimization in the Middle East wearing thin

Published May 27, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

It has been six weeks since the Boston Marathon bombings, and American media coverage has moved on to Oklahoma tornadoes, kidnappings in Cleveland, and various administrative scandals that Republicans are trying to link to the White House.

But there are lessons to be gleaned in the aftermath of the Boston bombings that will linger long after these other stories fall from public view.

Using the rationale of humiliation or victimization to attack the United States or other Western interests is getting tedious as an excuse.
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There is hardly a country on Earth where people cannot claim political or economic victimization at the hands of some other group. Indeed, we need look no further than our own nation to witness the suppression of an indigenous population by an external invader.

Some conquests have been more humane than others, but the suggestion that terrorist attacks against innocent civilians could be a legitimate response is absurd. People more exploited and economically deprived than those in the Middle East do not attempt to rationalize such actions politically.

While only tiny minorities actually engage in terrorism themselves, few in their communities openly condemn or demonstrate against these tactics. It is incumbent upon those connected to the perpetrators of terrorism to openly and unambiguously declare their opposition.

Only by repudiating such ruthlessness “within the family” might potential extremists come to appreciate the counterproductive impact of their strategies.

Religious absolutists who are prepared to commit suicide while killing others, because they think it guarantees them a place in paradise, must be openly challenged by others within their own community. Such extremists are hardly going to be influenced by outsiders, and otherwise the question lingers whether the minority community secretly condones such activities.

For all the resentment and hostility trumped up toward the West, our offences pale in comparison with the casualties inflicted by their own co-religionists.

Virtually every day we read reports about sectarian bombings in the Middle East and neighbouring countries, but the political fashion is to blame only outsiders, frequently wrapped in some tautological conspiracy theory.

From Algeria to Pakistan, we see conflicts based upon sectarianism or political ideology. They particularly resonate in societies where the population is atomized, mistrustful and xenophobic toward others who are different.

Exceptions to this dysfunction only seem to occur in authoritarian police states where fear and intimidation sustain a veneer of stability. Since the outbreak of the misnamed Arab Spring, these regimes are increasingly being challenged, and even when they aren’t, the West gets blamed for subsidizing them, as in Jordan.

Syria is the most outrageous contemporary example of sectarian slaughter among the domestic population, where fatalities now exceed 80,000 people, mostly civilians. Evidence suggests while blaming outsiders is politically expedient, the locals are much more proficient at killing each other.

Occasional apologists for the perpetrators of violence are the left-wing fringe who romanticize the “struggle against tyranny and colonialism” with very objective and myopic projections against what constitutes the roots of tyranny.

Is the United States, or the West in general, really responsible for the mass killings by the likes of Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi or the Assads of their own citizens? By transferring responsibility for their own society’s shortcomings, the U.S. becomes a convenient villain, whether it intervenes, as in Iraq, or it doesn’t, as in Syria.

The United Nations, which once provided a veil of respectability to advocates of the theory of victimization, has become impotent in its inability to do anything beyond passing empty resolutions.

Its 2003 report on human development in the Arab region identified important target areas for social improvement, including human rights, education and the empowerment of women. None of this has been acted upon in the decade since the report was issued.

The once lauded and euphemistically titled Arab Spring has not been able to build upon the removal of dictators with a vibrant political system based upon tolerance of other’s opinions and political compromise.

When one looks to rectify the problems of the Middle East, those from the area should first be examining themselves.

Cliffs, ceilings and sequestration

Published Jan. 23, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

The wrangling between Democrats and Republicans over deficits and the U.S. debt has just begun

The imagery of the fiscal cliff was an irresistible metaphor for media outlets covering the political confrontation in Washington in the closing weeks of 2012.

However, the wave of attention focused upon whether America’s economy would dive over the cliff on New Year’s Eve was merely a curtain raiser that has ushered in constant conflict in the new 113th Congress.

As it happened, that issue was addressed a few hours later, but only by kicking the can down the road for a few weeks. Some symbolic matters were dealt with in the New Year’s Day deal, including many Republicans being obliged to restore a higher tax rate for a tiny fraction of the wealthiest U.S. citizens, but in terms of alleviating the budget deficit it amounted to peanuts. The annual savings were approximately equivalent to the amount of revenue allocated to the victims of hurricane Sandy.

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