On July 16, Defence Minister Peter MacKay stood in front a life-size model of a fighter plane and announced the biggest military purchase in Canada’s history.
“The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the best aircraft we can provide our men and women in uniform to face and defeat the challenges of the 21st century,” he said. Canada had signed a multi-billion-dollar deal for 65 planes.
The announcement unfolded as planned.
Inside National Defence headquarters, analysts compiled a report on the 263 articles and 94 editorials produced on the subject. Initial coverage was considered positive.
Soon enough, the NDP and Liberals were asking questions. Opposition MPs charged that it was fiscally irresponsible of the Conservative government to spend billions of dollars on stealth aircraft while the country’s deficit ballooned.
“We’re in the middle of a $54-billion deficit and we’re just about to do $6 billion in corporate tax cuts,” Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff told journalists. “So they’re buying their giant strike fighter, or they want to buy it, on borrowed money. We think that’s crazy.”
The opposition also raised questions about the lack of competition in the F-35 deal.
In less than a month, defence analysts noted a shift in the national mood. Although news coverage was found to be “neutral and fact-based,” there was a negative tone to commentaries and editorials, according to DND documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen.
An EKOS poll later determined that 54 per cent of Canadians were opposed to the F-35 purchase. The Conservatives decided they needed new “messaging” to sell the public on their planes, according to sources inside Defence headquarters.
For starters, they had to deal with complaints from the Liberals and NDP that the competition had not been “an open, competitive, transparent process,” as MacKay had promised in the House on May 27.
Conservative messaging insisted there had indeed been a competition back in 2001 when the Pentagon selected Lockheed Martin’s F-35 over Boeing’s Joint Strike Fighter to be America’s new fighter aircraft. “There was a competitive process held under the previous government to choose this plane,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper. MacKay said the same thing. Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose accused the Liberals of “spreading misinformation.”
While there was a competition in the U.S., Canada had no role in it, say aerospace industry representatives, military sources and a former assistant deputy minster in charge of procurement at DND.
“That claim is a total fabrication,” says Alan Williams, who as DND’s assistant deputy minister for materiel was a driving force behind Canadian participation in the JSF program. “We didn’t play any role in selecting the JSF. We didn’t even know who would win. We watched the press conference on TV like the rest of the public.”
DND briefing notes obtained by the Citizen make clear that Canada’s participation in the JSF program was directed at understanding aircraft technology and improving the chances of Canadian industry obtaining contracts. There is no mention of Canada having any role in selecting the winning fighter.
Other DND documents note that Canada’s requirements for a new fighter weren’t drawn up until early 2010, raising the question of how Canada could have selected the F-35 as the plane it wanted back in 2001.
Aerospace industry representatives say the Conservatives’ claims about competition are laughable. At the time Lockheed Martin’s F-35 was selected, Canada had $10 million invested in a $300-billion project. That kind of money buys no influence in a program designed to create 9,000 U.S. jobs, they say.
The Conservatives also had to confront charges that the JSF purchase demonstrated fiscal irresponsibility. The solution? “It was the Liberal government that in 2002, committed Canada to the development of this aircraft,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, a point frequently echoed by his Conservative ministers.
But DND briefing notes and other government documents obtained by the Citizen make clear participation in JSF research did not lock Canada into buying the plane. In fact, the Harper government emphasized this point in a December 2006 news release announcing Canada’s involvement in the next phase of the JSF program.
Finally, the government wanted to prove to Canadians that there was a military need for the sophisticated aircraft. Military sources say the Russians inadvertently proved this point.
For the past several years, the Russian military has conducted routine patrols that skirt Canadian and U.S. coasts, but never enter domestic airspace. The U.S. has done the same to Russia. The Conservatives had previously used the Russian flights to bolster their defence policies. Now the patrols would become a centrepiece in the government’s JSF communications strategy.
On July 28, two Russian “Bear” bombers flew 400 kilometres east of Goose Bay, N.L., prompting the military to launch two CF-18s to check out the aircraft. Details were leaked to the Sun newspapers, a media chain that counted Harper’s former communications director among its top executives.
“Canuck Flyboys Intercept Bombers — Ruskies (sic) Sent Packing,” read a headline in the Ottawa Sun. In the article, an unnamed defence expert speculated the Russian aircraft might have been carrying nuclear warheads while another analyst said the flight proved the need to buy new fighter jets.
The Conservatives circulated “talking points” to their MPs on how to use the incident to embarrass Ignatieff and bolster support for the F-35s.
“Embarrassingly for him, Russian bomber flights over the Arctic — just two days ago — underscore why our men and women in uniform need modern equipment to do their jobs,” the memo noted.
Russian officials in Ottawa were puzzled by the government’s decision to release information about a routine flight outside Canadian airspace.
“I don’t see anything special here,” said Sergey Khudyakov, the press secretary for the Russian Embassy in Ottawa. He pointed out that the aircraft were well off Canada’s shores and out of Canadian airspace. Khudyakov noted that past media stories had linked routine patrols to “domestic politics.”
With the news about the intercept making the rounds, MacKay, who denied leaking the information to the Sun, started to do TV interviews. He called the Russian flight “alarming” and said the Canadian aircraft were launched to send a tough message to Russia.
What MacKay didn’t say was that the Canadian and Russian militaries were on relatively good terms. In fact, they’d planned a training exercise together. Just weeks after MacKay voiced his concerns about the Russian flight, Canada, Russia and the U.S. launched that exercise. Dubbed Vigilant Eagle, it involved military personnel operating from command centres in Russia and the U.S. used fighter jets to follow and intercept a “hijacked” plane.
Just weeks after Vigilant Eagle, the Prime Minister’s Office was again citing the Russian threat as it promoted the F-35s. Canada, the U.S. and Denmark were conducting a military exercise in the Arctic. On Aug. 24, the Russians sent two aircraft on a patrol into the region. Again, CF-18s were sent to shadow the planes, which didn’t enter Canadian airspace.
In an early-morning email to journalists, the prime minister’s spokesman, Dimitri Soudas, used details of the Russian patrol to justify the purchase of the F-35. “It is the best plane our government could provide our Forces,” Soudas stated. “When you are a pilot staring down Russian long-range bombers, that’s an important fact to remember.”
Inside National Defence headquarters, sources say, there was growing unease about using the Russian ‘threat’ to promote the F-35 purchase.
The joint Canada-U.S. North American Aerospace Defence Command pointed out that the Russians had not done anything improper, an unusual announcement that some considered a rebuke of MacKay’s and Harper’s public relations campaign.
NORAD statistics, obtained by the Citizen, challenge Conservatives’ claims that the U.S. and Canadian militaries were facing off against 12 to 18 Russian flights each year. NORAD’s statistics showed the majority of the Russian patrols don’t involve Canadian territory or interceptions by Canadian aircraft.
Asked to comment on the statistics, MacKay responded by email that the job of the CF-18s is to protect Canadian airspace. He then launched into a pitch, promoting the purchase of the F-35. “The Joint Strike Fighters will inherit those responsibilities, and are the ideal aircraft to allow our men and women in uniform to accomplish their work,” he said.
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Selling Canada on the need for fighter jetsIn Canada on December 12, 2010 at 13:32