Monday, October 3, 2011

F-35 conference offers more new questions than answers Provided by iPolitics Staff

So much ink and so many pixels have already been spilled over the ongoing F-35 saga, it would be difficult to imagine how anyone could have much more to say. But as a number of people were reminded last week in Ottawa, the academics still need to weigh in.

On Friday, the University of Ottawa convened a day of presentations on the maligned fighter. The workshop consisted of three separate panels, each tackling a different aspect of the international debate on the planes: the globalization of the defence industry; the European and U.S. perspectives on the procurement process; and some historical insight into other Lockheed Martin controversies.

When it came to European involvement in the program, Frédéric Merand of the Université de Montréal, as self-declared non-expert on F-35s, predicted the Italians would not end up buying any. That theory was a contentious one with the small crowd.

Why, given Italy’s massive investment in the program, would they then decide not to purchase any planes, he was asked. In his answer, Merand took it a step further: if the current economic trend continued, no European nations will be buying the plane.

Indeed, over the weekend came the news that thanks to setbacks in development for both the Eurofighter and the F-35, British defence manufacturer BAE Systems is expected to cut 3,000 jobs in order to get the company back into shape.

And even if a country like Italy does decide to ditch the F-35 for another fighter, its options would still be limited. There are, after all, only a handful of friendly defence companies from which many Western nations can choose, even if many of those purchases result in political scandal. After all, argued Jennifer Erickson of Boston College, those scandals rarely have long-term consequences.

This raised another question entirely: are the issues surrounding the F-35 procurement only symptomatic of the defence industry’s inherent tendency to be scandalous? Is there an expectation that all military procurements will likely be mired in some controversy? The answer remained elusive.

It was among many questions that, in a classic academic way, appeared to have no immediate answer on Friday.

Srdjan Vucetic, from the University of Ottawa, asked another: Why is it that throughout all the media pondering, and all the political posturing, have crucial issues gone untouched?

Namely, he wondered about Canada’s unwillingness to question the availability of the plane’s source codes. Access to that kind of information has been crucial for both Turkey and India during deliberations over new fighter jets. Canada, on the other hand, squabbled over the per-unit price and whether the acquisition process was competitive. Is Canada so much a lap dog to the U.S. that such an issues is not even up for debate?

By the time discussion wrapped Friday afternoon, more questions had arisen than concrete answers, no doubt opening more avenues of debate on a program that seems to have no shortage of issues to prod.

© 2011 iPolitics Inc.

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