Fresh off his ascent in the Canadian elections, Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau is grounding planes. The day after defeating Stephen Harper, Trudeau informed President Obama that Canada will withdraw its six fighter jets from the coalition bombing the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. "He understands the commitment I've made around ending the combat mission," Trudeau told reporters, invoking a campaign pledge to shift Canadian involvement from air strikes to training anti-IS forces and delivering humanitarian aid.
Trudeau didn't offer a timeline, but he may soon redial the White House for yet another pullout. The Liberal leader has vowed to abandon the troubled multi-billion dollar purchase of 65 F-35A stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin. The F-35 has been developed under a nine-nation, Pentagon-run initiative sharing the jet's $1.5 trillion USD cost (counting everything from development through the 55 year projected life of the planes in the fleet), making it the most expensive military acquisition in history.
Canada's exit would end an involvement plagued from the start. Without holding an open competition, the cabinet of outgoing prime minister Stephen Harper signed on to the F-35 program in 2010 to replace an aging fleet of 1980s-era CF-18s. After investing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, the government was forced to freeze the project in 2012 when an audit found officials had mismanaged the project and hid its true costs.
While the public was told the F-35 purchase would amount to around $9 billion, estimates say the actual price tag could reach as high as $49 billion over the deal's four decades. The controversy has piled on as experts issued scathing assessments of the plane's functionality.
"The F-35 is double-inferior," an analysis by the RAND Corporation (a US think tank with strong military ties) concluded, "[It] can't turn, can't climb, can't run." Pierre Sprey, revered designer of the F-16 fighter jet, was even more blunt. "It's not good at anything — it's a turkey," Sprey told the CBC in 2012. The F-35's "real mission," he explained, was "for the US Congress to send money to Lockheed." A mock airfight earlier this year saw the 1970s-era F-16 come out on top, leading one test pilot to complain that the F-35 suffered from "a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement." Lockheed has pushed back on the staged air battle, saying its plane wasn't fully equipped.
Against this backdrop, canceling the F-35 deal became a cornerstone of the Liberals' campaign. Calling the jet purchase a "nightmare," Trudeau promised voters he'd scrap it and pick a cheaper alternative. "It's a stealth fighter that will cost tens of billions more than what Harper promised, a stealth fighter jet that can't defend our Arctic, a stealth fighter that's not actually stealth," Trudeau declared. "A new Liberal government won't buy the overpriced F-35."
With the Liberal leader now set to take office, that position, more than extricating Canada from the fight against IS, is causing the most waves.
"That's to their detriment because it's the most important fighter plane ever built," fumed Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. "They have the right to do whatever they want to, but it's stupid."
"Trudeau hasn't left himself any outs," a US industry source warned Reuters. "His statements were very categorical."
Despite its detractors, the US and Lockheed are sticking by their project, calling it the most effective and agile fighter jet in history. "The F-35 is comparable or better in every [metric], sometimes by a significant margin," Lockheed says. A US Government Accountability Office review found "considerable progress" in the F-35's development, which it said is "now moving in the right direction." Defenders also say the F-35's projected costs have been overblown, and that alternatives like the Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet won't be much cheaper, if at all.
While Canada will lose the development money it's spent on the F-35, it apparently won't incur additional penalties for pulling out. But there could be other consequences. Lockheed could lose up to $6 billion, and the firm has suggested potential repercussions for Canadian contractors.
"If the Canadian government were to decide not to select the F-35, we will certainly honor the contracts that we have here with the Canadian industry," a Lockheed exec said in 2013. "But our approach in the future would be to try to do business with the industries that are in the countries that are buying the airplane." Harper echoed that warning during the campaign, claiming that Trudeau's pledge would mean "cratering our aerospace industry." Canadian firms have estimated they stand to lose up to $8 billion over the deal's lifespan.
Others involved in the program have played down those concerns. "I don't see any reason why [Canadian suppliers] would not continue to be part of the team whether Canada [purchases aircraft] or not," Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapons buyer, said last month. Alan Williams, the military official who presided over Canada's entry into the F-35 deal, has also said Canadian firms will emerge unscathed.
For the remaining nations partnering to buy the F-35, Canada's exit means one less party to split the bill. On Wednesday, the Pentagon said Trudeau's move will raise the United States' per-plane cost by $1 million, or more than $1.7 billion overall. That's a fair sum on its own, but a relative drop in the docket compared to the $400 billion Washington has already spent.
If he follows through, Trudeau will make Canada the first nation to ground both the anti-IS bombing mission and the F-35 procurement program. Taken together, experts say the moves portend a new foreign policy direction for a post-Harper Canada.
In ditching the F-35, Canada will not only forfeit any stealth capability for the foreseeable future, but it "may also be dumping any hope of operating over battlefields protected by sophisticated surface-to-air missiles and long-range radars," the military industry news site Defense One notes. The Liberal Party platform affirms that, saying: "The primary mission of our fighter aircraft should remain the defense of North America, not stealth first-strike capability."
"It reflects a shift from war fighting (and participation in 'coalitions of the willing') to sovereignty protection," McGill political scientist Rex Brynen told VICE News. "It is early days yet, and political realities have a way of modifying electoral campaign positions. However, there is no doubt that the Liberals will adopt a far less bellicose public posture."
Others say the shift will only go so far. Yves Engler, author of several books on Ottawa's foreign relations, says Trudeau won't end Canadian militarism abroad, just scale it back. "Washington presumably won't like Canada's withdrawal [from the anti-IS coalition], but the question becomes whether they make some kind of side deal for enhanced Canadian participation," Engler says. "Special Forces operations — which Trudeau is not calling for the removal of — could increase as part of a backdoor deal. The Liberals have a tendency to not participate in the high-profile politically controversial missions, but then provide other forms of military support."
David Perry, a Senior Analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, points out that Trudeau will increase Canada's small training mission in Iraq. "Depending on the nature of the training mission enhancement, that could be a very significant, leadership role [for Canada]," Perry says. Instead of withdrawing the current force of around 600 Canadian soldiers, there "could simply be a shift in emphasis."
"Canada is, has been, and will continue to be, deeply connected with its allies in the security realm," says Jeremy Littlewood of Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. "This represents a change in Canada's contribution, not a seismic shift in Canada's commitment to work with allies in countering terrorism."
For Trinity College professor and Middle East scholar Vijay Prashad, Canada's exit from the anti-IS bombing highlights the precarious state of the US-backed coalition.
"The alliance has been ineffective strategically in its war on IS," Prashad says. "Canada's withdrawal will not impact the bombing as such, because it did not play a major role. But Canada did provide the sense of an alliance. Will this be taken as evidence of a weak coalition? It was already weak — it merely proves the obvious."
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