What do a Ross Rifle and an F-35 Fighter Have in Common? In Canada, More than You Think.
Dwight Eisenhower famously said:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.”
Even Eisenhower realized we live in a Realpolitik world requiring states to spend money on defense because every nation has a military – either its own or somebody else’s.
In a perfect world, the money we spend on defense would be vastly better spent elsewhere. But we live in an imperfect world, a cost we must incur. Like paying for firefighting or house insurance – defense remains necessary and – like insurance – best if never needed. But our world is imperfect. Thus we need to fund defense. This does not have to happen at the needless expense of our people if we do it honestly. But we rarely do that in Canada.
This only makes the perennial political waste of Canadian military equipment money even more tragic. What do I mean by this?
The robins always return in the spring. The sun always sets in the west. The Leafs always raise everyone’s hopes before invariably crushing them. And both Canadian parties always fail at defense procurement.
Today, I announced that Canada is acquiring a new fleet of 88 F-35 fighter jets. This project is estimated at $19 billion – making it the largest investment in our @RCAF_ARC in three decades. This project will ensure that our aviators have the tools they need to defend Canada. pic.twitter.com/4qbaT3vC1B
— Anita Anand (@AnitaAnandMP) January 9, 2023
This constant runs through Canadian histories, like the theme in a Baroque melody. It’s the perennial fate of every significant Canadian defence equipment purchase since the 1890s. It happens every time Canada tries to buy domestic or foreign equipment. Things get invariably, massively and in a unique hoser way, quite politically messed up.
Consider the Ross rifle, the Avro Arrow, the EH101 helicopter, and now…the F-35.
— Marc Haslam (@marchaslam1) January 10, 2023
It’s not even that these are necessarily bad ideas or poor equipment choices. The Ross was intended to equip us with a reliable high-tech rifle. As a bonus, it would help establish the technological/industrial basis for Canadian industry. That it failed in WW1 combat wasn’t the rifle’s fault as much as the political micromanagement by politicians of both parties – Grit and Tory.
The Avro Arrow parallels the same dark and cloudy mythical status as the Ross. Were it the best fighter of the day is irrelevant. It was bleeding edge expensive but technology. Started under the Liberals, the ham-fisted, strategically, politically inept cancellation by the Diefenbaker government was the real tragedy.
We named Project Arrow for Avro Arrow. The spirit of what those amazing 🇨🇦s did in the 1950s inspires us still.
I’m not afraid of how it ended, I know its history. If it were easy, there’d be nothing to talk about.
— Flavio Volpe (@FlavioVolpe1) January 9, 2023
That particular government did have sound reasons to cancel the Arrow. The problem was how they did it. They decided to cheap out from cold feet due to political blowback from our massive Cold War defense spending.
But in their flailing cancellation, they scuppered the entire and incredibly high-tech Canadian aeronautics industry. Unforgivably compounding the error by destroying all existing airframes, they flushed all prior investments down the toilet like your kid’s goldfish. Most of those suddenly unemployed engineers were eagerly hoovered up by the US industry. They went on to build things like the Apollo program, SR-71s, and F-15s – a loss of untold billions of dollars.
Later in the 1980s, we needed to replace our Oberon-class subs. Guess how that went?
Canada needs submarines as part of its territorial defense for several good reasons. But what was 1950’s era super-U-Boats do have a life expectancy you can’t push past without risking the lives of the people you expect to crew them. Thus for the Arctic, the RCN wanted nuclear-propelled boats made sense. But nukes were a political no-no.
After an expensive multi-decade Navy staff analysis process, the government said no. “O-boats” were retained well past their expiry date. Their RN sisters were museum ships by then, and we finally got hand-me-down Upholders. Ships with shortened life spans, higher maintenance costs, and serious problems forced Lt(N) Chris Saunders to sacrifice himself to save HMCS Chicoutimi.
— Kraken 38 (@AngusTopshee) June 14, 2021
Then the Sea King replacement. Helicopters: how hard is that to screw up? Replace an outstanding aircraft that served our needs incredibly well. Pointless political dickers, great old girls to serve from 1963 through 2018.
That’s 55 Years. For an aircraft working in the harshest environment on Earth. Reality check: When the same airframe was flown by the grandfather of the current squadron’s commanding officer… you’re going to run into maintenance/serviceability problems – despite the heroic efforts of their ground crews.
— Hugh Culliton (@CullitonHugh) January 9, 2023
To quote the Talking Heads, “Same as it ever was”:
The cause was political bickering by Liberals and Conservatives kicking the political can called the EH-101 back & forth. Canadians died in Sea Kings crashes that might never happen if those aircraft had been replaced on schedule.
Now we need to replace the CF-18. It reminds me of the same accusations, editorials, and political hand-wringing back in the early 1980s when we finally picked them to replace the elderly CF-101 Voodoo. Itself the RCAF’s consolation prize for losing the Arrow!
Fun fact: The CF-101 started life as the world's loudest turbo-prop. No – that's not photoshopped. pic.twitter.com/iFDA07wBqV
— Hugh Culliton (@CullitonHugh) January 9, 2023
Canada has always been defended more by our diplomacy, alliances, and geography than by independent military forces. As we are part of NATO and NORAD, we need a NATO standard kit. It can be expensive up front, but alliances have benefits and drawbacks. Consider the weapons spending of neutrals like Sweden: it’s far cheaper to buy off the shelf and cooperate with others.
So to the F-35. The CF-18, while an outstanding (I find them gorgeous) aircraft, was developed in the 1970s and is aging out. Anyone who learned computation on a Commodore Pet can understand the difference between 1970s tech and 2023. We can only boost old systems so far before it’s vastly cheaper to replace rather than upgrade.
I’m not going to get into the tech details – the RCAF and Military Twitter can argue either case vastly better than I. That’s not my point. In brief, the pros/cons from my limited perspective are these:
Pros: Avionics is bleeding edge. The Ukraine War has shown us how modern telemetry, drones, and processing power are revolutionary combat force multipliers. The F-35 does have this in spades. The platform will likely be able to serve our needs for 25 years before requiring severe upgrades.
Cons: F-35s will be expensive upfront, and I’m not a fan of a single-engine fighter aircraft for the role of an all-weather fighter bomber for Canada. A twin-engine design like the F-18 E/F Super Hornet, though a dated procedure, is still new and cheaper to convert squadrons as maintenance and training would be on a similar platform.
The perennial Canadian cheapness problem again rears its ugly head. My point is the constant Canadian problem of turning every equipment purchase into a political football. The political dithering causes us to spend far more than necessary to get less. We always spend a pound to save a penny.
Every Canadian government sees defense, not as a necessary function of the state. Every issue becomes partisan political football. Whichever government starts a purchase, the opposition will invariably rail against the boondoggle and corruption. And on it goes.
Sometimes, as with the Ross, Arrow, and EH-101, this even contributes to the government’s fall. While good for partisan politics, it costs us all severe money. When the new government gains power, they face the same issues. So they prevaricate until politically forced to make the (usually) exact same effing decision – or worse. But by then, it costs the taxpayers vastly more and risks CF personnel their lives; the people are the net losers.
We are all facing the converging catastrophes of the 21st Century. Resource scarcity. Climate change. Global political chaos. The death cult of unfettered capitalism. Canada will have to spend money on defense.
Thus all political parties have a double moral responsibility, first to CF personnel. If we order people into lethal harm, they deserve the best kit for the job we can give them.
Every dollar spent on defense is a Canadian child unfed, a Canadian unhoused, and a Canadian patient untreated. But politicians have an equally explicit duty to the taxpayers who are forced to fund this. Politicians must do it in the most efficient, least costly manner possible.
Playing politics with defense spending wastes money and lives. I hope the current government does better with this one, but I’m not holding my breath, as this is Canada. Nor do I think the other two would do any better.