Too big to wrap your brain around

Too big to wrap your brain around

The debate over Canada’s plan to purchase the unfinished F-35 fighter jet is a crucial event for our democracy. It is the biggest purchase of its kind Canada has ever made.

The F-35 is a lethal piece of military hardware. For people who love aircraft technology it is a thing of terrifying beauty. For a guy like my dad, an aerospace tool and die maker, it represents the apex of technology and materials.

But what is it for? Why do we need it? Does it work? No one has explained this clearly.

The F-35 is a high-speed stealth attack machine, meant to be part of a shock and awe campaign. There are a few design glitches that come with its dull grey matte finish.

So not only did the government and the military brass string us a line about how much it will cost to buy the jets – first it was $14.7-billion, now it’s $24-billion, and some analysts say it is more like $40-billion over 35 years – they aren’t even reliable.

Auditor-General Michael Ferguson, that unilingual fellow who caused such a ruckus, says the government knowingly low-balled the price by at least $10-billion.

The purchase makes no sense. Supposedly we are in a period of austerity and cut-backs to programs. Didn’t we just reduce access to pensions by planning to extend the retirement age to 67? Never mind that the cost of buying and operating a single aircraft would easily pay for the CBC cuts, Katimavik, Rights and Democracy and a national daycare program, and we would still have the cash needed to modernize the fleet of F-18 hornets.

To the average person at the checkout counter at the grocery store, the idea of buying such high-priced military equipment boggles the mind. That may be why relatively few people seem to be upset by it. It’s just too big to wrap your brain around.

One thing we have learned about big defence purchases is they are often accompanied by brown paper envelopes stuffed with untraceable cash. When the full-scale investigation unfolds about these planes, and it will, it will be fascinating to follow the money.


Des Morton, Canada’s leading military historian, chooses his words judiciously. "The F-35," he writes me, "is a flying coffin, a single engine fighter that might not get a pilot from Iqaluit to Resolute in a snowstorm." Professor Morton expressed dismay that Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defence contractor, has produced such a lemon.

Lockheed Martin is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, defence contractor in the world. With annual revenues approaching $50-billion, the corporation is the incarnation of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning about "the military-industrial complex." Despite the fusillade of bad press over the last week, don’t count out Lockheed Martin. They have a bold history of turning failure into profits. They are expert at hiring retiring generals, paying them handsome fees and setting them loose among the defence bureaucrats.

The 1960s version of the Joint Strike Fighter was Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter. America’s NATO allies all signed on to the project. And then the planes began to fall out of the sky. In Germany, so many planes crashed that the fighter was called a lawn dart. They said that every German citizen would soon have an F-104 sticking out of their front lawn. The aircraft became known as the "widowmaker." Out of the 200 F-104 fighters bought by Canada, 110 crashed one way or another.

How powerful is this nexus of the military and their contractors? Eisenhower came to the presidency in 1952 determined to shrink the defence budget drastically. After all, the U.S. led the allies to victory over Hitler’s Germany and Imperial Japan. So the armed forces that won that war were no longer so badly needed. Or so Eisenhower thought.

Eisenhower was also determined to get rid of the CIA. But the powerful defence lobby went to work. Eisenhower found himself thwarted at every turn, and after eight years as the most powerful citizen on Earth, the President of the United States had to admit failure. Instead of a cut budget, he left his successor, John Kennedy, this unparalleled warning:

"We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist," Eisenhower said.

In 1960, John Kennedy came to the presidency as a hawk. But by November 1963 he had evolved into the world’s most powerful dove. At the American University in the summer of 1963 he gave the most pacific speech ever uttered by an American president. The speech was hailed in the Soviet Union. Elsewhere it was called treason. At the CIA and the Pentagon, the generals and spies began talking of a coup d’état. In a conspiracy worthy of Shakespeare, many believe that JFK was murdered by his own military, with an assist from the CIA and the Mafia.

We may never discover how much of that scenario actually went down. But let no one underestimate the ability of these monstrous transformer-like defence contractors in getting their way.

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