Brian Stewart: The F-35 fiasco and Ottawa’s culture of secrecy
Apr 4, 2012
By Brian Stewart, special to CBC News
The who-knew-what about the real costs of the F-35 fighter jet Canada wants to purchase is worrisome enough. But at the heart of the fiasco is a far more serious concern about what public honesty means to this government.
It’s a sad state that few Canadians appear surprised by the auditor general’s findings that Parliament was kept in the dark over the real costs of this program and what looks to be a $10-billion overrun.
Many seem to assume that misleading and denying whenever it suits is a government’s normal default position. After all, this government seems to have done it for years on Afghanistan and with its other problems in national defence.
In my own attempts to unravel the F-35′s real costs I never once met a single soul outside government and knowledgeable about defence purchases who believed the prime minister’s promise that the planes could be delivered for a bargain-rate $75 million each.
I never met anyone inside the Canadian military who thought so either.
I’m sure thousands in the aviation industry who follow these programs, especially in the U.S. and Europe, simply assumed Ottawa was dealing in fairy tales for public consumption, from which it refused to budge.
This is why we need to see if this current mess is part of a pattern of official “misstatements” on defence matters. If so, we’ve got a serious national problem.
The Afghan adventure
If we look for trends, the Afghanistan mission offers so many of these quicksand moments over direction, policy and costs that it will baffle historians for years. It certainly confused Stephen Harper’s own minister in its day.
Defence Minister Peter McKay in the cockpit of a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in July 2010. Canada is planing to buy 65 of the new jets from Lockheed Martin, but at what price? (Reuters)Remember when the prime minister was never going to “cut and run” but then suddenly switched 180 degrees to launch the 2008 election with the promise of a full pullout in 2011.
The defence department was stunned, and so was his minister Peter MacKay.
“I don’t know,” MacKay told reporter Murray Brewster when asked how the historic shift came about. “I heard about it the same time you did.”
Military officers were also perplexed when Harper reversed himself again at the Lisbon NATO Summit in 2010 and committed 900 Canadian Forces personnel to stay on in Afghanistan for some years after the pullout on a training mission.
He was under enormous pressure at the time from Washington to help out, and described the training mission as not very risky.
But everyone involved knew that foreign military trainers were fast becoming the new targets of insurgent groups, as the past many months have clearly demonstrated.
Throughout the war, inquiring journalists found our military to have become increasingly secretive and at times even untrustworthy, as National Defence and PMO communications staff snatched control of information away from officers in the field.
For long periods Canadians were denied information on the number of Afghan detainees that Canadian soldiers handled, the tally of firefights our soldiers were involved in, the number of attacks on Canada’s main base in Kandahar, even the full number of our wounded.
What’s more, they were constantly assured the Taliban was being battered into weakness, despite quite contrary evidence.
As for the total cost of the Afghanistan adventure? That was, and remains, as murky as the cost overruns of the F-35 program.
The less said
Even supporters of the war, like leading historians Jack Granatstein and David Bercuson, in their Lessons Learned? study last October revealed horrible mismanagement.
Today that study reads like a primer for the F-35 shambles. We see layer after layer of weak political leadership, jealous bureaucratic infighting, and a complete lack of strategic insight from the top on down.
The prime minister’s office has not only rigorously controlled every aspect of government communications, muting the military’s own voice, but it seemed determined to give Canadians as little information as possible on the war, the study said.
In the historians’ words: “The prime minister may have concluded that the war could not be won, was politically costly and, therefore, the less said of aims and objectives the better.”
The same attitude, of saying as little as possible, seems to have been at play again during this long process over the F-35 purchase, with the government simply refusing to retreat from its predictions that these next-generation jets would cost only $15 billion over a 20-year period.
That is quite a gap from the $25 billion lifetime cost that others, including the parliamentary budget officer (and even some DND officials, the auditor general has now revealed) felt was reasonable.
A history here
When pressed, Harper’s team even denies it has agreed to buy the plane. Yet it was the only warplane ever held up for Canada’s defence needs, while a fresh competition involving other planes was totally ruled out.
I’d like to think our top soldiers would refuse to go along with misleading Parliament. However, the public relations domination of National Defence has been eating away at even some core ethics of our military for some years now. The way it did in the RCMP.
Think of the number of events where misleading stories are put out there. Defence Minister Peter MacKay uses a search-and-rescue training flight to prolong a fishing trip. Any waste is denied, until the media shakes out the details.
Then, as payback, military officials tamely sent over information on opposition members’ flights to the minister’s office, so he could throw these back at his opponents in question period.
There was also the case last fall, when reports leaked out that Chief of Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk had used a government jet to connect to a family vacation in the Caribbean. His staff bitterly complained that he had been set up by “higher ups” in government and it’s widely believed he felt that way too.
Petty? No, it suggests just how much dark infighting is going on between defence and politicians, as the culture of secrecy and even intimidation spreads.
At times, these attempts to mislead can be quite farcical. Like last summer when one of Canada’s four submarines crashed on the ocean floor and the deputy-commander of the navy dismissed the incident as a mere “fender-bender.”
Actually, the hole in the hull was so extensive that the sub commander was relieved of his command and HMCS Corner Brook is not expected back in service until 2016.
This trend towards denial makes everything about the misstated F-35 billions a deeply serious affair.
We really need to know how deep the deception went in this case. And we ought to be much more curious about what is being carried out in our names under the cloak of secrecy.
About The Author
One of this country’s most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents, Brian Stewart is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He also sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world’s conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.
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