After years of opposing the purchase of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II fighter jets, Canada’s Liberal government has announced their intention to begin negotiations to purchase eighty-eight of the aircraft to replace the country’s CF-18 fleet. The about-face comes twelve years after the Conservative government of former prime minister Stephen Harper undertook, in principle, a sole-source contract to buy sixty-five of the fighters. The decision comes a further two and a half decades after Canada joined the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter development program. The move has drawn criticism from all quarters as a case study in waste, inconsistency, sleight of hand, and defense orthodoxy.
The Liberals either lied about buying the jets or broke a promise not to buy them. Whether you oppose or support their purchase, Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015 on an express promise to walk away from the F-35s and enter into “an open and transparent competition.” Along the way, there have been signs dropped that the promise was always an empty one, such as the flip-flop on the pledge to withdraw from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Nevertheless, as Mitch Heimpel writes in his “short history of our F-35 debacle,” the Liberal platform stated, “We will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter bomber.”
After their election win of 2015, the Liberals temporized, bought dodgy used jets from Australia, and began the procurement process anew before arriving back where they started — a journey from A to B and then back to A again. Except that the return to their starting position was marked by amendments allowing more money to be spent — an estimated but sure-to-climb $19 billion CAD — and, along the way, buying more jets than the Conservatives had planned to.
It’s easy to dismiss the policy reversal as just another instance of the cost of electoral politics, like backing away from the promise of electoral reform when it becomes obvious you won’t get your preferred system. Procurement minister Filomena Tassi spun the turnaround as simply good governance. She noted, “There is a difference from speculating and saying in a sole-source contract, ‘We think this bidder is going to give us the best deal we can possibly get,’ and actually going through the process.” This may be true, but it does nothing to remove the blame that can be laid at the door of the Liberals for misleading Canadians in 2015 and forming government on false pretenses.
The whole affair is a story of legerdemain and spin. The country was always going to buy one fighter jet or another, though in the fashion typical of Canada’s ministerial coterie, the purchase was preceded by dissembling and policy lurches. If one accepts that military spending on fighter jets is necessary, then the only solution is to buy jets, posthaste. Canada’s CF-18 fleet is older than the film Top Gun.
It is hard to ignore the facts that the money was already budgeted and the F-35s were a front-runner with benefits. Canada is a part of the F-35 development program, and the fighters meet interoperability requirements bound up with NATO and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) commitments. Lockheed Martin’s jet was the preferred model of the Department of National Defense. Moreover, as two security scholars note in an interview with Aaron Mehta, the company has the virtue of not having launched a trade challenge against Quebec-based jet manufacturer Bombardier, as Boeing, a competitor in the recent procurement race, has.
The Liberals appear to have proceeded with the procurement process on the assumption that the jet purchase was a foregone conclusion. There was little to no debate about whether the jets should be purchased or what the costs and opportunity costs of defense spending are. Indeed, in 2015, Trudeau’s opposition to the F-35s and their high price tag was rooted in a promise to spend the savings on the Navy. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a Western push to boost military buildups — including Germany’s 100-billion-euro pledge — Canada was under pressure to increase defense spending toward meeting NATO’s guideline of 2 percent of GDP, up from its current 1.39 percent.
Politicians in Canada haven’t pushed back on new military spending. The New Democrats call the NATO target “arbitrary,” but they support new defense money — especially if the cash produces good industrial jobs. The Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that meeting the NATO target would cost Canada another $20 to $25 billion a year. In 2021, an open letter signed by, among others, Neil Young, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Sarah Harmer, and David Suzuki called on Trudeau to ditch the jet purchase and focus on other priorities, including “healthcare, education, housing and clean water.” The letter and the movement behind it failed to move the needle.
When it comes to military spending, the punditocracy and defense-boosting politicians don’t tend to ask, “How are you going to pay for it?” However, University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe ran down some options ahead of the federal budget in early April. There are ways to pay, but Tombe reminds us that there are costs and trade-offs. A recent deal signed by the governing Liberals and opposition New Democrats promises movement on dental care and prescription drug coverage, programs whose details have yet to be fully determined. If you buy the scarcity frame, as most politicians and voters do — even if deficit spending is kept within an acceptable debt-to-GDP range — then there’s only so much money to go around.
As the country looks toward spending on pandemic recovery, welfare state programming, growth in health care costs, climate adaptation and mitigation, and more, the threat of defense spending edging out or diminishing social spending is real. This is doubly the case in light of the universal law that defense spending tends toward boondoggle, including with the F-35, as Australia learned.
As T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem “Little Gidding,” “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” He might as well have been writing about Canada’s military procurement process, save for the fact that we never seem to end up knowing the place from which we set out to repeat our recurrent error. Instead, we accept the spending orthodoxy of our political class, watch as they repeat the same mistakes, and learn nothing.
As we sleepwalk into a repeat of the geopolitical follies of the last century, the F-35 debacle serves as a reminder that our politicians’ predictable and preventable blunders are not inevitable. Political flip-flops have consequences, as do spending decisions and the trade-offs they imply. It’s still up to Canadians — not the political class, lobbyists, or foreign allies — to decide what their priorities are and what kind of country they wish to live in.