On March 28, defence minister Anita Anand announced that Canada would be going ahead with the purchase of a fleet of 88 F-35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin. The budget for the planes was presented as $19 billion, but this is just the up-front cost, and we can be sure that the final bill will be much more. This $19 billion is in addition to the $8.8 billion in new spending announced in April’s budget. While various federal governments have spent over a decade waffling over these planes, one thing that’s remained consistent is that they’re a tremendous expense that will be used to inflict misery on people across the globe.
If the announcement creates a sense of deja vu, that would be because the Harper government announced that it planned to buy 65 of the planes back in 2010. Those plans were grounded after the Parliamentary Budget Officer and Auditor General raised questions about the truthfulness of the $9 billion price tag that the government was putting forward.
The Tories would make subsequent attempts to finalize the purchase, but there was never a point when it became politically tenable—despite constant laments in the news media about the state of Canada’s armed forces, Canadians just did not want to spend billions upon billions of dollars lining the pockets of Lockheed Martin.
Justin Trudeau capitalized on this sentiment in 2015 when he promised as part of his election platform that his government would not purchase the F-35s and instead look for a cheaper option. There was no principled opposition to military spending, only opportunism.
Now, years later, we’re right back where we started.
Commenting on the long and winding road to the purchase, University of Manitoba military expert Andrea Charron said, “It’s consistent, persistent Canadian issues with procurement. We tend to make the decisions very partisan ones. We’re loath to spend lots of money on defence.” Other commentators have likewise decried the Liberals’ “partisanship” and “politicization” of military spending. In doing so, they present military spending as an issue that is somehow not political, as though spending the equivalent of the GDP of a small nation on war machines should just be accepted as a matter of course. They blame the Liberals, and the Conservatives before them, for delaying an “inevitable” purchase, while ignoring the fact that Canadian voters did not want the planes.
By and large, Canadians like to think of their armed forces as a peacekeeping force, concerned mainly with humanitarian missions. This is far from the truth, and Canada’s “peacekeeper” image obscures the murderous role that Canadian imperialism plays as a junior partner to the United States. However, it does make it awkward for the government to explain the “humanitarian” utility of aircraft that have mainly been used to terrorize the skies over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, especially when most Canadians don’t believe there is a need to increase military spending.
In this respect, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a happy accident for the Liberals, as it allows them to use anxiety over the war to justify the unjustifiable. Gen. Tom Lawson, retired Canadian Chief of Defence Staff and former RCAF aviator, spoke to this when he said, “It was Winston Churchill who said never to waste a good crisis. That brings about ideal conditions for an announcement that might otherwise have been slightly embarrassing for the Liberals.”
NDP for fighter jets
While the NDP has in the past taken positions against military intervention and Canada’s involvement in NATO, this has not necessarily translated into opposition towards funding the Canadian Armed Forces itself. The logic behind this is again on display in National Defense Critic Lindsay Mathyssen’s statement on the purchase of the F-35s.
The fact that Canada should be spending money on fighter jets is taken as a given, as “Canada’s men and women in the armed forces deserve the best equipment”. What the planes will be used for and how many lives they’ll destroy is not called into question. Instead, the NDP criticizes the purchase because the F-35 “does not have Arctic capability”. Presumably, this critique springs from the naïve hope that the planes’ main function is to peacefully patrol the skies of Canada’s North. This is an utter fantasy. The second prong of the NDP’s critique is that the Liberals are not taking a “made-in-Canada approach” to the purchase. They talk about this like it’s any other government contract, and not fighter jets that are built to kill people.
In general, the NDP’s approach is to decouple the question of military spending from the question of making war. In doing so, the NDP contributes to the illusion that the Canadian Armed Forces can exist without being a tool of imperialism.
The reality of the Canadian Armed Forces is far uglier than whatever the NDP seems to think it is. Fighter jets are not made for peaceful purposes. Instead they will be used to bombard smaller countries into submission in the interests of asserting the interests of Western powers. This was the case in the ‘90s with the NATO bombing of the Balkans, and in 2011 with the airstrikes against Libya. Both of these operations left chaos and destruction in their wake, laying the foundations for years of bloody civil wars and decades of misery. There is no “humanitarian” use for war planes.
The cost of war
The price tag on the 88 F-35s currently sits at $19 billion. While this is already a massive amount of money, the final cost will certainly be much higher. Back in 2010, the Conservatives said that 65 of the planes would only cost $9 billion. It wasn’t until the Parliamentary Budget Officer stepped in that the full life cycle cost was revealed to be $29.3 billion. In 2012, the estimate went up to $45 billion. It beggars belief that 88 planes in 2022 would cost less than 65 did in 2012. As an editorial in the Globe and Mail pointed out, “It’s true that the individual price of an F-35 has dropped in the past decade, as some noted this week when Ottawa announced its intention to negotiate with Lockheed Martin. But watchdogs in the U.S. are saying the lower price is based on selective mathematics, and that the jet’s maintenance costs are soaring.”
There is no telling how high the final cost of the F-35s might be. And yet the purchase comes at the same time that governments are pinching pennies over public-sector contracts, when spending on COVID support for workers was decried as wasteful and healthcare systems are struggling under the weight of a pandemic that is still ongoing.
To put things in perspective: A federal dental-care program for uninsured Canadians would cost an estimated $1.5 billion per year. A national pharmacare program for all Canadians is estimated at $15.3 billion annually. Free post-secondary tuition would cost approximately $10 billion. The cost of housing all of the homeless in Canada would come to roughly $5.25 billion per year. Ending boil water advisories on reserve would cost $7.4 billion. The list of ways that $19 billion (or more likely, at least $45 billion) could be used goes on.
How many people have died in the past two years due to overburdened hospitals? How many people have lost their homes due to losing incomes during the pandemic? Are we to believe that there’s no money to deal with these problems, but there is money for stealth fighters? Military spending kills twice—once with a missile, and once by depriving workers of the resources they need to live. This is an acceptable cost for the capitalist. To them, every dollar that goes to extending the reach of imperialism is a dollar well spent.