Cynicism is dangerous. It provides superficially appealing protection against disappointment, but at the cost of being protected against hope, and outrage, and good policy. For instance over the latest chapter in Canada’s sorry fighter jet saga.
In case you missed it, or couldn’t bear to look, the plan now is to keep the recycled Australian CF18s and the originals flying until 2032. We’re going to spend $1.5 billion or so on upgrades to the electronics, and “eventually” we might get them up-to-date weapons, according to the National Post. As a revealingly absurd side detail, they’re starting with the avionics because “navigation and communications improvements will allow 94 fighter jets, which include the 18 used planes from Australia, to meet new regulations to fly in civilian airspace.” So we have our priorities straight. First red tape, later excuses, some day up-to-date missiles and who knows, some day new planes.
If you’re wondering where defence of the realm fits into all this mess, boy, are you ever naive. The Canadian government isn’t serious about defence and, the sad part, no longer feels any need to pretend to be.
As I’ve mentioned before on this subject, a few hundred times, technology is moving faster than ever. Which you might expect politicians to know given how gee-whiz they are about broadband, AI or whatever is currently trendy. But while for once they’re not wrong about the fact, they’re confused about the implications. Those of us old enough to remember the sound of a dial-up modem (or a non-digital cash register) are very aware of how rapidly things are improving or at least getting faster and more powerful, and crucially, how the pace of change is itself accelerating.
The iPad was invented in 2010. The “smartphone” in 2007 with the first iPhone. And however cool those things were back then, you’d look and feel quite the chump using one now. Not because fashion has moved on, but because the devices have. So what of the CF-18?
This aeroplane won the “New Fighter Aircraft Project” competition when Trudeau was Prime Minister. Pierre Trudeau. In 1980. And we began getting them in 1982. At which point your phone had a cord though not, mercifully, a rotary dial.
The “Voodoo” was sure looking creaky by then, having been a hot number in 1961 that carried air-to-air nuclear rockets by the way. But the CF-18 came online in the era when the fax machine was a hot number for most businesses. So imagine trying to conduct business today using office equipment from 1982. Brrrrr.
Now imagine that instead of the semi-forgiving atmosphere of the office, especially the government office where you still get requests for a fax or are sent a “PDF” that was first scanned, badly, instead of being generated digitally from the original file, you were in the ruthless and fast-moving world of combat where obsolescence or other tactical inferiority quickly proves lethal. Oh dear.
Except of course we only go to war in situations where we have such dominance that it doesn’t really matter that our equipment is obsolete. And “we” are mostly the Americans, who like having us along and don’t make a big stink about our gear.
Still, the idea that we’re still going to be flying the military equivalent of a fax machine or dot matrix printer a decade and a half from now is going to raise eyebrows in the Pentagon, provided they haven’t lost their capacity to be shocked. Have we?
Can we imagine the changes in technology that will happen in the next 13 years? We read endless breathless stories about the next 10 world-changing inventions, as if our lives could be and needed to be turned upside down every seven months. But major changes will come, thick and fast, in military affairs where small things made a big difference as long ago as the Second World War (like the harder alloy on Spitfire propeller edges). And speaking of the Second World War, unless you’re Chinese it started in 1939 and ended in 1945, not quite six years later. So we’re going to wait for two more Second World Wars to get new planes? Clearly we’re not planning to fight a war.
I don’t deny that military procurement is a nightmare, especially as technology changes so fast that, as with computers, whatever you buy will be obsolete by the time you get it home, out of the box and charged. Maybe it’s just as well to skip the whole F-35 thing in the hopes that no war will come before we’re on to the next thing. But what if one does?
Probably Uncle Sam will protect us so we don’t need a military. Which is just as well because we haven’t got one, aren’t planning to and, most worryingly, have lost the capacity to be shocked. The brief National Post story I cited ran at the bottom of page A4 on Monday and nobody cared. Or more accurately nobody was surprised enough to care.
We should care. Because one thing cynicism doesn’t protect against is foreign threats. And they are still very real.
Photo Credit: Jeff Burney, Loonie Politics
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