03/21/2012 10:41 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Good Riddance F-35s: You Just Took Up (Air) Space


The Canadian government is adopting a newly flexible stance on the purchase of fighter jets to replace Canada's aging fleet.

Whereas the government had previously been adamant that Canada was firmly committed to the purchase of 65 F-35 planes, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is now clarifying that the government has not signed any binding contract (despite his own statements to the contrary). The junior defence minister, Julian Fantino, has even spoke of potentially "backing out" of certain parts of the deal if cost overruns prove excessive.

The fighter jets have been a brewing controversy for some time now, with the government's price tag of $16 billion for purchasing and maintenance being called into question by independent observers and analysts.

The government's change of tone regarding the planes will be fodder for the opposition parties.

Beyond the inevitable rhetoric about flip-flopping and "we told you so," however, this development will hopefully serve as an opportunity to rekindle the substantive debate about the planes themselves. Now that the government has acknowledged that its commitment to the project is only tentative, it must accept the legitimacy of challenges on the merits (as well as the cost) of the purchase.

These challenges can be made on several grounds.

The planes have encountered numerous malfunctions, groundings, and delays throughout the design and construction process. The situation is rather reminiscent of the Ballistic Missile Defence program which Canada considered and ultimately rejected in the last decade, and into which the United States continues to funnel billions of dollars in exchange for mixed results.

Perhaps the most touted advantage of the planes is they were commissioned by a coalition of states, including the U.S., the United Kingdom, Turkey, Italy, Australia, and Japan, so as to enable air power interoperability among the members of the group. But this argument is being undermined as, one after the other, each of these states have reduced or tempered their commitment to the program.

Above all, it simply remains unclear what purpose Canada would have for dozens of fighter jets. To be sure, Canadian fighter jets helped enforce the no-fly zone over Libya during the early days of the NATO assault. Canada should have a competent military able to engage in self-defence as well as peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions overseas.

But the urban and covert warfare that increasingly defines combat missions in the 21st century cannot be fought with fighter jets. Nor is there a threat to Canada at home that can be countered with aerial domination. In the only place where Canadian sovereignty is of real concern -- the Arctic -- the F-35 may not have the communication and logistical equipment to operate effectively.

To summarize, Canada has not signed a multibillion dollar contract for planes that are unproven, unpopular, and unnecessary. Glad to hear it.