Ottawa Delays the F-35 Decision. Should We Be Worried?

Steve Saideman on the Canadian government's track record of eschewing consultation on important decisions.
By: /
June 26, 2014

The Globe and Mail reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has withdrawn the F-35 from the agenda of a recent meeting of the cabinet’s committee on planning and priorities. A skeptic might suggest this is part of a larger effort to delay the big decision until after the next election, and yes, I am that skeptic. I got some pushback from Philippe Lagassé, who served on the panel that evaluated the evaluation process, as he suggested this might mean that this merely gives the relevant cabinet officials more time to take seriously the work done thus far. So, this might just be my confirmation bias at work.

Why am I skeptical? The pattern of Harper decisions over the past several years has tended to suggest that more/better information is usually not a key ingredient in decision-making nor is consultation with the rest of Cabinet. When Harper decided in 2010 to send the 900-person CF mission to help train the Afghans from 2011 to 2014, this was news to NATO. The decision was also made almost entirely without advice from the Canadian military. More recently, when the panel of scientists came out with the map that should be the basis of Canadian claims to the Arctic, Harper asked them to revise their work as the claims were not expansive enough.

To be sure, politics should and always will drive decisions. We live in a democracy and not a technocracy to quote a Lagassé tweet. However, one of the mantras I took seriously from my year in the Pentagon in 2001-2002 was that intelligence should drive policy. That is, that the best understanding of the situation should set the parameters for the politicians who then shape policy. When that is reversed, as we saw in 2003 where the US administration had a policy in mind that then shaped the intelligence and how it was evaluated, bad things happen—such as invading a country because of non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

When we think of the F-35 or whatever plane Canada ultimately chooses, we need to think about how it fits in the broader policy challenges facing Canada. I have elaborated here before about the threats facing Canada and the need for a strategy. When I suggested that the Canada First Defence Strategy [CFDS] is obsolete, I am told that the six pillars, which have largely been consistent over time in Canadian defence thinking, are still relevant. These are:

  1. Conduct daily domestic and continental operations, including in the Arctic and through NORAD

  2. Support a major international event in Canada, such as the 2010 Olympics

  3. Respond to a major terrorist attack

  4. Support civilian authorities during a crisis in Canada such as a natural disaster

  5. Lead and/or conduct a major international operation for an extended period

  6. Deploy forces in response to crises elsewhere in the world for shorter periods

Maybe all these are still in play, but having six priorities without any serious ranking is almost as unhelpful as having no priorities. Priorities mean taking seriously the tradeoffs and evaluating which pillars are most important. Being deployable may mean choices that come at the expense of guarding the Arctic. The good news is that I have been told by officials off the record that the CFDS is being revised. The bad news is that the revisions have not been made public. Which means that we have less information than we should about how to evaluate the choices the government is making or would be making if it were actually making a decision.

This leads us back to the news of the week—that there is no decision forthcoming on what to do about the fighter project. Perhaps delaying the decision makes sense, as Canada will then be purchasing the planes not at the beginning of the F-35 production cycle but towards the middle or end. This might mean that the bugs have been found and that the planes Canada actually gets might be better. Or the government could just be waiting until after the next election.

The problem, as always with this government, is that we do not know. Ottawa always denies that there are problems, asserts that decisions have not been made when they have, and spins so much that nearly everything is pretty hard to observe. Of course, this has worked for Harper, as his government has been in power for nearly a decade. So, deferring, denying, and obscuring may just be good political strategy. That it leaves the CF and the Canadian public uncertain about Canada’s plans for the military down the road is an unfortunate side effect.