Election Issue 1: The F-35 Purchase

Posted on April 9, 2011


Perhaps my previous post about ethical issues that should be campaign issues was a bit too idealistic, given that CBC cut out the parts of their interview with Elizabeth May in which she discussed the environment. The pessimist in me thinks that I should work with what I’ve got. Accordingly, I’m going to spend the next few days considering issues which could realistically be seen as ballot questions for the upcoming vote. First on the docket: The F35 fighter jets. The Liberals have used this to criticize the Conservative government, and the Conservatives aren’t budging on the matter, so it will certainly be in the minds of at least a few voters as they cast their ballots.

First off, let’s acknowledge that these jets are kind of cool. They can take off vertically, they have stealth capability, and they are one of the fastest, most maneuverable planes ever made. Pretty neat stuff. Unfortunately, all of those capabilities exist solely so that the F35 will be a more effective support platform for a variety of devices that are remarkably effective at ending human life. So let’s start our discussion with the recognition that our government is proposing to spend up to thirty billion dollars on a machine whose primary purpose is to kill people.

Supporters of the purchase will probably engage in some rhetorical gymnastics at this point: Yes, the plane is for killing people, but sometimes we need to kill people to save more people or to safeguard our interests or some other thing. I don’t want to get into the complexities of just war theory at this point, so let’s for the sake of argument assume the truth of that statement. The question then becomes whether the F35 is a cost-effective choice for precisely the kind of killing we need to do.

Firstly, we should consider our involvement in the Middle East. Do we need an advanced strike fighter to serve our needs in Afghanistan, Libya, and whatever other interventionary wars we might feel like joining? Probably not. The Taliban don’t have an air force and we therefore do not require a state of the art plane to bomb them. Libya’s air force is so primitive that it could easily be brought to its knees by even our most dated fighter jets. We don’t need state of the art fighters to bomb the Middle East. Any old plane can drop ordinance from ten thousand feet.

The F35 is the product of an arms race in which state of the art fighter jets are designed to be able to easily shoot down the previous generation of state of the art fighter jets. Wealthy nations from around the world participate in this no-win cycle of military spending for the same reason that the Americans and Soviets spent thirty years stockpiling nuclear missiles: Each country is afraid that if it does not keep up, it will invite an attack from another power and be unable to defend itself. This, true to form, is the Tories’ favourite defense for the F35 purchase: If we aren’t adequately prepared to win an air war, then we’re going to lose our sovereignty to some other big power.

There is, of course, absolutely no evidence that we are in danger of finding ourselves in an air war any time soon. I will, however, give the Conservative supporters the benefit of the doubt. Let’s consider some possible countries with air forces that might feel the need to attack us.

Russia: Ask any foreign policy hawk and they will insist that the Russians have massed thousands of Migs in Franz Joseph Land, which are prepared to come screaming across the North Pole the moment we let our guard down. Presumably, they want to capture the Northwest Passage and subjugate all the inhabitants of Canada’s North. This would have to be opposed because the subjugation of the Inuit is our job. In such a situation, the Americans would almost certainly come to our aid, given that they have a considerable economic interest in our stability. Our ownership, or lack of ownership, of F35s would be immaterial with the American military’s inevitable involvement.

Denmark: We’ve been in a few territorial scuffles with Denmark over Hans Island, the tiny Arctic rock seen below. Nobody lives there, and there are no valuable resources to speak of. I would not want to shed a drop of blood to protect Hans Island.

Denmark can have Hans Island.

China: Why would China want to invade us? Pardon the expression, but they’ve already got us by the balls economically. If for some reason they did launch an attack, the situation would be much the same as that with Russia: The Americans would get involved, and our possession of a few dozen state of the art fighters would be immaterial to the outcome.

The United States: Forget that they’re our biggest trading partner and that they can have anything of ours that they want by just buying it. Forget that public opinion of Canada within the United States is sufficiently high that it would be political suicide for any US president to launch an invasion of Canada. Let’s suppose that the Americans get it in their head that they want to invade us for some reason. In such a situation, we would lose. We would lose without F35s, and we would lose with F35s. If the Americans invade us, then we will be well on our way to becoming the fifty-second through sixty-fifth states before we know what’s happened. F35s will only help to prolong the war just a little bit longer so that more people can die.

Those are the countries I can think of, and in each one of them, the purchase of new fighter jets would make very little difference in the end result of an unlikely confrontation. Are you really  willing to spend $30 billion on a killing machine whose usefulness in defending our sovereignty will be marginal at best? Or would you rather spend that gigantic amount of money on useful things like education, poverty relief or high speed rail? You could buy a lot of social services for thirty billion dollars, and social services tend to result in far fewer deaths than fighter jets.