How gaudy baubles and military Keynesiasm gave birth to the F-35

Canada's F-35

A STRAIGHT-SHOOTING bureaucrat will admit that procurement processes are often initiated with the final selection a foregone conclusion. If you know in advance what you need, and you furthermore know who’s most qualified to deliver, then formalities intended to promote transparency and accountability are at best inconveniences to circumnavigate — and every public servant knows well how to steer that ship. That this occurs regularly within the bureaucracy is an open secret.

The Joint Strike Force program, at the centre of which is a proposed purchase of F-35 fighters, introduces disturbing wrinkles to an otherwise unremarkable bureaucratic occurrence. On military matters I refer to the self-described “prolific Ottawa blogger” Mark Collins, who has been training his keen eye on this fiasco for years. At his site you’ll find links to a range of useful resources, for example a DND PowerPoint which makes it clear that military leaders chose the F-35 and only later manufactured the selection criteria. Again, not unusual in procurement. The department however did so on grounds no one has yet admitted, never mind defended. That’s only one of many problems.

Reviewing the Auditor General’s report and the media coverage of this issue, I infer that the F-35 achieved the status of a foregone conclusion for the following reasons. 1) Canada had invested millions of dollars into the F-35 program as early as the 1990s; 2) Lockheed Martin Aeronautics lobbied aggressively, and more effectively, than its rivals (and employed Prospectus Associates, a consultancy firm with the inner track to Defence Minister Peter MacKay); and 3) the F-35 series of fighters — although years from completion and with many important details unclear and ever-changing (including year of completion, engine cost, cost to maintain) — were the only “fifth generation” fighters on the table. As the Auditor General points out, fifth generation “is not a description of an operational requirement.” My own reasearch suggests this phrase means something like ”Ooo!” — which is what I often say when I see a jet fighter in action.

The dissembling and equivocations of public servants, and the subversion of process and procedure, abetted by elected officials, have been well covered. The names of cabinet ministers and senior military officials ripe for dismissal have been put forward. All well and good, and so be it. As it always does in these cases, the government has layered on more oversight and promised reform. None of these actions however gets to what I discern as the two root problems, one of which I’ve suggested above.

Reduced to its most basic formulation, this first root problem is the matter of operational requirements. What are they, exactly? You’d expect someone on the cusp of spending $25 billion (and likely more) to be able to say in plain and compelling English why the purchase is necessary. Plowing through dozens of pages of documents, I’ve yet to stumble on any description of military or even foreign policy objectives, other than promoting trade, over the coming years. It really does appear that the F-35 purchase is a case of acquiring the most dazzling toy on the shelf. Canada has provided no big picture, no policy vision, no set of defence criteria that would justify this particular purchase. No amount of procedural reform will address such lack of vision.

Framing this F-35 mess is the 2012 federal budget. The Department of National Defence has undergone deep cuts, and it is clear that these cuts will reduce the ability of the military to operate, maintain, repair, and replace its equipment. Politicians will talk about finding efficiencies and doing more with less, but the budget makes it clear that the military will have to do less with less. The public and media can only speculate what this “less” is, for the government has been vague.

There’s another root problem, and it’s also to be found in the 2012 federal budget. This document superstiously relies on the notion that everything the feds do creates jobs. Every spending initiative in the budget creates jobs. Every departmental trim, and every restraint, ditto. Having gone through the budget, I wonder if Mr. Flaherty thinks a job is created when he sneezes. At the same time I was reading the budget, I was reviewing the federal government’s 2010 F-35 sales pitch — which, coincidentally, was the DND’s and Lockheed Martin’s sales pitch. Again, it’s all about “industrial benefits.” Lo and behold: the F-35 program creates jobs!

One name for this line of argument is “Military Keynesianism,” the idea that a brilliant and effective way to create jobs and boost the economy is to give folks like Lockheed Martin billions of dollars of public money. In the 1980s, the American public heard many Pentagon procurement stories concerning $40 staplers and $200 hammers, all part of a federal stimulus effort which by 1988 had tripled the nation’s deficit. There are distinctions to be made between this and the present case. Nonetheless, these staplers and hammers came to my mind as I dug down into the bogus F-35 procurement process and my shovel chipped the Reagan-era bedrock.

Whether one agreed with his arguments or did not, Ronald Reagan at least could produce a Cold War narrative to account for his spending. The Government of Canada in contrast has proposed to spend many billions of dollars in pursuit of its unspecified military objectives and the gross, wasteful inefficiencies of Military Keynesianism. This, too, deserves further scrutiny.

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