In his final speech as president of the United States in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans about growing dangers of the U.S. military-industrial complex.
Eisenhower was no peacenik. He was a proud and highly decorated soldier but his words still ring true today, as the United States and its allies struggle with the staggering costs of military procurement.
The Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet is at the centre of this roiling debate.
It became heated in Canada this week when the federal auditor general slagged Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government for slipshod procurement processes that will cost Canadians untold millions of dollars.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson said senior government officials in the departments of Defence and Public Works knowingly and negligently underestimated the true costs of buying and maintaining a new fleet of fighter jets.
Lax ministers in Harper’s government let them get away with it.
Criticism of this boondoggle is being led by the New Democratic Party, which is now Canada’s official Opposition.
It would be easy for the Harper government to portray the opposition — including the Bloc Quebecois and Liberals — as peacenik lefties who don’t support our troops.
But criticism of F-35 jets is not limited to the left side of the political spectrum. American Senator John McCain is about as conservative a guy as you will ever encounter.
He’s a former U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down in a bombing raid over Hanoi and spent more than five years in Vietnamese prisons before his release in 1973.
McCain is now the top ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
He says the American F-35 jet-purchase plan is “a scandal and a tragedy,” a “train wreck” and “incredibly expensive.”
Canadian taxpayers are about to find out just how grim McCain’s assessment is.
Our government plans to buy 65 F-35 jets at a cost of $9 billion, or $138 million a pop. That total does not include all ongoing operational and maintenance costs.
Facing strong headwinds in the United States, the jet’s manufacturer is pushing hard for international sales to America’s allies.
“Interoperability” is a dominant theme in the sale pitch. If all allies are using the same jet, their theory goes, they will be able to co-ordinate and fight much better together.
Canadian civil servants in the departments of Defence and Public Works thoroughly bought into this argument.
They framed the parameters for Canada’s jet purchase plan in a way that only Lockheed Martin’s F-35 could meet.
Boeing and a European aircraft consortium were effectively kept out of the competition in the way the requirements were set. Harper and his ministers did nothing to stop this folly.
That means Lockheed Martin had no incentive to shave its margins and compete on price.
Federal civil servants added to the deception by lowballing supplementary maintenance cost projections.
Lack of diligence within the Conservative caucus when those rules were accepted meant that the purchase plan was effectively a sole-source competition.
The F-35 jet is a wondrous weapon, to be sure. Its core requirements, set by the U.S. government, also mean it is the most expensive aircraft ever built.
The Pentagon wanted a jet that was capable of supersonic flight and short takeoffs and landings (STOL).
Supersonic jets are generally long and skinny; STOL jets are shorter and fatter. Lockheed Martin squared the circle with staggeringly expensive new design and technological features to meet both goals.
In doing so, they created massive new costs and higher pilot risks.
The F-35 has only one engine, unlike its chief competitors.
If that engine fails, $138 million worth of hardware is lost forever. The pilot must bail out.
That can’t be comforting for Canadian aviators, whose key tasks include patrolling Canada’s vast and frigid Arctic.
American pilots have also found the F-35 extremely difficult to land on aircraft carriers.
Concerns are now growing in Canadian ranks about how it will perform on icy northern runways.
It may be the best jet that a huge pot of money can buy, but it may not be the best for Canadian conditions.
Lack of diligent oversight from Harper and his cabinet ministers may eventually put Canadian aviators at constant, needless risk and taxpayers in a deep financial sinkhole.
Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.