Grits have short memory fighting F-35s

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Sun Media, Friday, September 17, 2010

The Conservatives have announced $16 billion of defence spending on the new F-35, the next generation jet fighter plane. The government will spend $9 billion to acquire 65 F-35s and another $7 billion to service them.

The Liberals have countered that if they form the next government, they will put the acquisition on hold so that there can be a competition to build the aircraft, rather than sole-sourcing it.

Weíve been in this movie before.

In the 1993 election, the Liberals campaigned against the Conservativesí $4.8 billion plan to acquire 50 EH-101 helicopters. Symbolically, Jean Chretien kept that promise on his very first day in office.

The cancellation costs alone were $500 million. The technology transfers that would have been gained in servicing the helos were lost to the Canadian aerospace industry.

And 17 years later, the Canadian Forces are still flying around in 40-year-old Sea Kings, notorious for falling into the ocean, and which require at least 30 hoursí service for every hour in the air.

Interestingly, Chretienís communications director in those days was Peter Donolo, now Michael Ignatieffís chief of staff. Heís running the same playbook, but itís a different play with a lot more at stake, including sovereignty over Canadian air space.

One thing is for sure ó the CF-18 fighters based in Quebec and Alberta have been flying since the mid-1980s, and are due to be retired by mid-decade.

The Liberalsí complaint about sole-sourcing the F-35 is transparently phoney. The only company that builds it is Lockheed Martin. Boeing builds, well, Boeings. Sub-contracting in the supply chain, that could be another matter. But the mainframe of the aircraft, and its state-of-the-art technology, can only come from Lockheed Martin.

The Liberals should not be shocked or appalled by that. The F-35 was selected as the next generation fighter by a consortium of the U.S., Canada and other NATO nations. At the time, the Liberals were in government and it was their decision.

Any decision by a Liberal government to put the procurement on hold would jeopardize billions of dollars of industrial benefits from building and servicing the aircraft.

In addition, Canada would lose the technology transfers that go with the F-35. This is no small matter. When Canadair was awarded the CF-18 maintenance contract in 1986, the technology transfers were crucial to Bombardierís emergence as a global player in aerospace.

Let Iggy explain that to the Canadian aerospace industry based in Quebec and Ontario.

Then there are those who say we donít need an advanced jet fighter to patrol our skies, since the Cold War ended 20 years ago and the Russians no longer pose a threat to North American airspace. Rubbish. The Russians may not be the Sovs anymore, but they still have territorial ambitions as a transpolar power and are known for occasionally pushing the envelope.

Moreover, if we donít enforce our own sovereignty, particularly our sovereignty over Arctic air and waters, the Americans will do it for us. This is not an outcome Canadians want.

Finally, it is nonsense to suggest the Canadian Forces donít need a fighter component for overseas actions. The F-18s were deployed in the first Gulf War in 1991, constituting the only Canadian role, other than a hospital, that saw the coalition eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

Itís a slam dunk.

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