Canada’s weapons spending flies under the election radar
– by William S. Geimer –
As governments of every stripe come and go, the quaintly named Department of National Defence (DND) continues to gain unquestioned approval for billions in unneeded weapons purchases. In the run-up to the October 21st election, for example, any mention of the ongoing effort to acquire jet fighter planes, including the infamous F-35, is couched in terms of Canadian jobs, and laced with patriotic language about our forces deserving “the best”. The major parties squabble over “transparency” in the process. None of them ask the question: “For what purpose”? There are two news items here. First, the F-35 and other aircraft under consideration are not defensive weapons. They are first strike attack aircraft. Like the CF-18 they are to replace, their primary purpose is clearly to continue aiding U.S. military adventures that are killing civilians. Second, even if one could abide that purpose, the jobs are not coming.
The F-35 fiasco: bad ideas never die
The 22-year scandal over purchase of the F-35 stealth fighter, one of the most expensive military acquisitions in Canadian history, is a perfect example of the joint Tory/Liberal/NDP enthusiasm for buying expensive weapons, while leaving indigenous people to boil their water and teachers to buy school supplies from their own funds. To the extent that the question “for what purpose” is any part of this saga, it is answered only obliquely by reference to creation of Canadian jobs. There is no mention at all of the part those jobs play in killing civilians and contributing to resentment around the world. And even the jobs factor is fast disappearing. The only reasonably arguable purpose is, of course, to do the foreign policy bidding of the U.S. – an increasingly dangerous enterprise.
The history of Canada’s pursuit of a plane that will not even fulfill its morally suspect purpose would be the stuff of late night comedy parodies were it not for the seriousness of the matter. It all began modestly in 1997, when the Liberal government of Jean Chretien invested $10 million to get in the F-35 game. That was quickly followed by another $150 million. The total would become more than a half billion dollars. Chretien may not live to see the first plane roll off the assembly line, if indeed it ever does.
Unsurprisingly, in 2010, the Harper Conservatives were enthusiastic about replacing Canada’s CF-18 fighters with the F-35, and announced their intention to purchase it via an exclusive, no competition contract with Lockheed Martin. All the opposition parties could find to argue about was the absence of competition. Nobody asked “for what purpose?” In 2011, when Tories won a majority, the F-35 was something of a campaign issue, but not much. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, a military hawk himself, could hardly be expected to raise the alarm. Harper promised a balanced budget without mentioning military spending. The massive F-35 purchase plan did not appear in the Tory’s 2015 campaign platform.
Throughout, DND continued unimpeded to call the procurement tune for all parties, and protect the F-35 plan even as the inevitable cost overruns appeared and early tests of prototypes failed to meet Canada’s requirements. DND even altered Wikipedia page entries to remove information critical of the F-35 or the Harper government plan to spend $18 billion on it. The Liberals and NDP cried foul about that, but continued to voice no objection to the purchase plan itself, never asking “for what purpose?”
That question was addressed in part by Leonard Johnson, former commandant of the National Defence College: “It is hard to see any useful military role for the F-35.” In a comically ironic response to this objection to the purchase of planes for U.S. foreign operations, the Assistant Chief of Air Staff insisted that the purchase was necessary to protect Canadian sovereignty! Then defence minister Peter McKay also offered some thoughts about the purpose of buying F-35s. He said they would be a great recruiting lure for pilots, and be very important to the continued growth of the Canadian Forces. Did anyone else miss the vote to continue growing the Canadian military, or the justification for it?
A look at the positions of political parties helps explain how this ongoing waste of money has been allowed to continue for more than two decades. Following the Tory commitment to purchase F-35s without competition, the NDP instead promised an open process to replace the CF-18, while remaining in the Lockheed-Martin F-35 bidding. In 2015, Trudeau and the Liberals initially campaigned on a promise not to purchase the F-35, but have since come around to the NDP position. That could, of course, change any day.
For the 2019 election, the representative of a supposedly progressive party, NDP defence critic Randall Garrison (Saanich/Esquimalt/Sooke), is among the most culpable. While good on some social issues, he has apparently never seen a weapons system for Canada that he didn’t like. Surely Garrison knew it was not true when he claimed in his July newsletter that the NDP would “provide maximum benefits to the Canadian aerospace industry by giving extra weight to bidders willing to build those jets in Canada.” The truth is that Canada’s U.S. masters nixed that possibility in May.
The Green Party Platform is saner in several respects. It flatly rules out buying the F-35. It promises to reduce the budget for replacing the CF-18. And, importantly, it promises that the primary mission of the replacement would be the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability. While not perfect, this looks like a commitment to at least reduce or disable the level of assistance for U.S. military adventures. In this election, the Greens’ David Merner, a serious challenger to Garrison, is the far better choice for many reasons. An important one is his intelligent commitment to addressing the real threat to the security of Canadians. Not the threat from whomever the Americans want to bomb next, but rather the threat from human destruction of the environment.
No party has come to grips with “For what purpose?”, but that is attributable to our collective indifference to the question.
The conversation this election year should include questions about the likely use of the new aircraft, if the history of the CF-18 is any guide. It should also include the effects of the job-killing flaw in the Harper government’s agreement to join in the bidding for the F-35.
The CF-18: on guard for whom?
The CF-18 has indeed been in service a long time. Doing what? Some operations have been relatively benign, like defending unthreatened U.S. airspace while their jets were grounded. Other missions have been part of U.S.- initiated campaigns that have killed thousands of civilians.
In the 1990s, after Canadian peacekeepers in the Balkans had distinguished themselves under very difficult circumstances, the U.S. decided to abandon that effort and solve things by force. After imposing an agreement on the parties, the U.S. obtained authorization for a “no fly” zone over Bosnia. CF-18’s were part of a 78 day NATO bombing campaign that killed thousands of civilians, displaced 600,000 and created millions of refugees.
In 2011, the CF-18s were also part of the perversion of the UN approved doctrine of Responsibility to Protect in Libya, ironically a well-meaning policy that originated in Canada. Rather than protecting civilians, the U.S. wanted regime change in Libya and the CF-18s made up 10 percent of the bombing campaigns that achieved it, along with bringing violence and chaos to the country that continues to this day.
The CF-18s made their most deadly contribution to civilian deaths, however, from October 2014 to February 2016 as part of the Western air campaign in the Middle East. Other Canadian aircraft provided air to air refueling for the bombing until January 2019.
How many civilians did the CF-18 crews kill while flying missions for the U.S.-led coalition in the Middle East? How many were killed by coalition aircraft refueled by Canadians? We will never know the exact number but there is no doubt that there were many women, children, and elderly who lost their lives. The Pentagon produces estimates based on checking with partner nations. In 2018, they admitted to killing 1,114 civilians in air and artillery actions. Groups like Amnesty International and Airwars talk to victim families and witnesses on the ground. They put the total at 6,500.
In Syria in 2017, these organizations report that air and artillery strikes around Raqqa alone killed 1,600 civilians. The Pentagon admission was 318 civilian deaths. U.S. commanders boasted that they had used more artillery there than in any place at any time since the Vietnam war.
Will the taking of innocent lives continue to be ignored by Canadians or reduced to a numbers game? Instead of this story, will we continue to be more interested in how we purchase more effective killing machines?
It is a strange world indeed where the Canadian government touts accepting Syrian refugees while it works with the U.S. to create them.
But What About All Those Jobs?
There is some bad news for Canadians, including those who think they would have jobs producing the F-35. It is also bad news for all of us, since we have so far spent more than half a billion dollars just to stay in the running.
Even if we are not concerned about producing weapons destined to kill civilians; even if our imagination is insufficient to picture our own parents and children being blown apart – the jobs justification is illusory. Here’s why:
In 2006, the Harper government joined a bidding consortium working to develop the F-35. In addition to a “bargain” price on the plane, consortium agreements like this usually have a section guaranteeing production jobs in member countries. But Harper agreed not to include such a requirement. U.S. officials recently reminded Canada of that.
Well, then, what about just asking that this or that component be built, assembled or tested in Canada? That is not good enough for the U.S. either. Officials say that, while only competing companies from nations in the consortium will get the work, they all have to be on an equal footing. No lobbying.
Reinvestment requirements could theoretically be part of a different deal to buy a plane other than the Lockheed-Martin F-35. However, two of the four alternatives under consideration by the Trudeau government have already dropped out. All this made for yet another snag in a process that was to begin in May 2019. Meanwhile, Canada continues to pay the current annual fee of $72 million just to remain in the F-35 game. And, of course, if we do not insist that our leaders get beyond process and into uncomfortable questions of substance, the killing of civilians will continue.
It does not have to be that way. Let’s abandon our benign indifference in election seasons. Let’s go to every candidate forum and put this question: Since 1997, military funding has gone from $10 Billion to $32 Billion. Funding for the environment, the greatest threat to our security, the environment, has remained flat at about $1.5 Billion. Will you support reducing and redirecting military weapons spending?
Let’s go further than that. Let’s help Canada take her place in the community of nations as a contributor, not to NATO, but to the broader reality of a world without war. For a practical pathway, see worldbeyondwar.org. It can be done.
William Geimer is a veteran of the US 82nd Airborne Division. He is emeritus professor of law at Washington and Lee University, and is now a Canadian citizen. Geimer now serves as defence policy advisor to the Green Party of Canada.