Taking Off – Maybe

U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters from the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin AFB, Fla. perform an aerial refueling mission with a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 336th Air Refueling Squadron from March ARB, Calif., May 14, 2013 off the coast of Northwest Florida. The 33rd Fighter Wing is a joint graduate flying and maintenance training wing that trains Air Force, Marine, Navy and international partner operators and maintainers of the F-35 Lightning II. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/Released)

The timing was fortuitous. When Canada’s Minister of National Defence announced that the government is buying 88 F-35 fighter jets, the announcement was timed for when the Prime Minister would be out the country.  That way he didn’t have to take any questions.

For him this is an especially embarrassing purchase, which explains why the announcement was made when he was in Mexico. Less chance of being asked why the government is pouring billions of dollars into a plane he said Canada did not need and would never buy. .

Canada’s military procurement process is always political and moves at a snail’s pace. The need for new jets has been known for 30 years. The decision to buy the F-35 was first made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2010, a decision that was subsequently suspended amid concerns about cost and effectiveness.

I’m not going to question the need for these planes, nor the price tag. Not today anyway. (I have a lingering love for the CF-105, even though I know no government will ever return to that plane.)

What this decision does highlight is the danger of making pronouncements and promises. Which politicians do all the time.

I think it is different to make a promise to do something and then not follow through. Certainly Canadian voters have been very forgiving of Justin Trudeau’s failure to follow through on his promises. From electoral reform to balanced budgets to government transparency to revenue neutral carbon taxes to climate change action, the only consistency is that he has broken his promises.

The people have collectively shrugged. It isn’t as if we expect politicians to do what they promise.

Promising not to do something feels different. The promise seems more definite when it is made, even though we know that politicians don’t live up to their politicians. Somehow it seems more embarrassing. Or would be if you were the type of person who feels shame.

Justin Trudeau was very clear. His government would never buy the F-35. He was going to buy cheaper, unnamed, jets and use the savings for six new offshore patrol ships for the navy. Until the Liberals discovered the F-35 was the jet that met the air force’s operational needs better than anything else they could buy. And the navy seems no closer to getting its new ships than it was in 2015 when Trudeau promised them the money was coming.

If there is a lesson for aspiring politicians to learn here, it is to be careful with your language. I doubt that in 2015 Justin Trudeau had paid much attention to military matters. He knew the price tag attached the the F-35, and that the Conservative government had thought it a wise purchase. That was enough to convince him to say “never.”

The funny thing is, Canada was part of the multinational consortium that developed the F-35, getting involved in 1997 under a Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chretien. Stephen Harper’s government continued its involvement because it was felt to be the best option for Canada’s defence needs. Maybe that wasn’t part of Trudeau’s briefing notes.

With the purchase announcement he looks silly. The smart thing would be to apologize for his 2015 pronouncement and admit he really didn’t know what he was talking about back then, that he let politics get in the way of proper evaluation of the jet and the military’s needs.

Do you think that is likely to happen? Neither do I.



  1. Neil Remington Abramson · · Reply

    Politicians are the one profession for which learning and adapting to changing circumstances is particularly discouraged. For other people in other professions we applaud willingness to learn and improve over time. In politicians, this is called “flip-flop.” Somehow, politicians are expected to be excellent prognosticators of unknowable future events, and utterly consistent in the face of unknowable uncertainty.

    One thing that has changed since 2015 is that with the election of Mr Trump, the US has proven itself an unreliable ally for Canada. Mr Biden has proven to be only marginally better with his subsidies for buy American. Canada can no longer rely on being defended by the US, or being defended, the price tag might be extreme. And Trump, or a Trump wannabe, looms on the horizon, post Biden.

    The Liberals need to adapt on the question of Canada’s ability to defend its own sovereignty. At least, like Ukraine, Canada needs the ability to put up a good fight till world opinion takes pity and provides help. Taiwan is in the same boat, and I expect so is Canada on a longer time frame. We do border on Russia in the Arctic. We do have a Chinese population the PRC works to subvert.

    Therefore, we need the planes, and ships. Perhaps like Japan (I think) we also should have nuclear weapons. They seem to have secured the sovereignty of Israel and North Korea. Apparently Trudeau is learning that Canada’s position in the world needs more than strong words to defend it.

  2. Phil allan · · Reply

    Trudeau apologize for HIS action? Ya, right!

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