Column

Why should we spend a couple of billion bucks for a job that doesn’t need doing?

Patrick Watson January 22 1979
Column

Why should we spend a couple of billion bucks for a job that doesn’t need doing?

Patrick Watson January 22 1979

Why should we spend a couple of billion bucks for a job that doesn’t need doing?

Column

Patrick Watson

Pierre Trudeau and his front-line troops on Parliament Hill claim in the face of high unemployment and a supine dollar that there is nothing really wrong with Canada, if only Canadians would start believing in themselves. John Diefenbaker used to talk the same line, condemning the voices of Gloom and Doom in the Opposition. But take a look at what both parties have done to Canadian self-confidence in one area where this country has a right to be immensely proud of itself: aviation.

Diefenbaker, in 1959, destroyed the Avro Arrow, a supersonic fighter whose spectacular Deltawinged silhouette prefigured Concorde by a decade or more. With the Arrow went a corps of some of the world’s best airplane people-most of them to the United States—and Avro never recovered. It had already produced North America’s first passenger jet, but Trans-Canada Air Lines and the St. Laurent Liberals let that one die too, and presently this historic Canadian company & died as well.

Funny thing: Diefenbaker was right to kill the Arrow on the purely strategic grounds Canada did not, as he argued, need a manned interceptor. The age of the bomber threat was indeed waning, as he said. How sincere he was, or strategically sound, was revealed by his then installing the obsolete Bomarc missile—whose only role was bomberbashing—which sat unarmed in bunkers at La Macaza, Quebec, and North Bay, Ontario, (the nuclear warheads were locked up and the Americans had the keys) until they were quietly decommissioned in 1972.

We finally did get a supersonic fighter; the F-5 Freedom Fighter, with conventional weapons, relatively cheap. Two of them from 434 Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cold Lake, Alberta, made history in 1976 by flying all the way to the polar ice islands to show the flag to an uninvited Soviet weather team camped there. Then there were the Starfighters, expensive, nuclear-capable, known to pilots as the “Widow-

maker.” We’ve lost 95 of our 238 NATO Starfighters; 32 pilots died with them. And there were the Voodoos, 59 of them, meant to do exactly the job for which Dief killed the Arrow. None of these squadrons has ever fired a shot in anger, being too busy preventing the Third World War. Needless to say, all of the airplanes were bought from the United States.

The men who fly these airplanes do their job superbly. But to talk of spending billions to replace these machines makes so little military sense that the

government which has to foot the bill seldom tries to Refend the acquisition on military grounds.

What we are told is that it will be good for Canadians to spend a couple of billion bucks on the foreign airplanes. It may be unpatriotic to buy foreign clothes, TVs or cars (a $1.7-million federal campaign urges us all to BUY CANADIAN). But these $2.34 billion (when we finally buy, with a 75-cent dollar and a few years of inflation, it will be more like $5 billion) will ( 1 ) make our allies in NATO happy to see us pulling our weight, and (2) make jobs in Canada because we will demand production and trade agreements to ensure that this is so. It is interesting to note that the government is not arguing that these weapons will make Canada safer from attack. (From whom, by the way? The only country that ever invaded us so far is the U.S., if memory serves.)

Splendid and appropriate missions like 434 Squadron’s run to the Arctic Islands to show the flag and wave at the

Soviets could be done more cheaply and more often by aircraft totally designed and built in Canada, like the Dash-7 which could even land on the ice and have a friendly but firm chat with the interloping weatherniks.

But no. The dollar is slipping and we buy German tanks. From the world’s foremost arms-deal bribe artists, we’ve bought more than $1 billion worth of anti-submarine patrol aircraft to prevent World War III by assuming it will be played like World War II. Now we are asked to fork over for fighters to do a job in Canada that does not need doing, and a job in Europe that our German and American allies can better afford.

What we should do instead is this: cancel the fighters and make our own decisions about how to make Canada strong and safe, instead of dancing to the NATO tune. If we are weak and vulnerable in Canada now it is because we are divided and confused, worried, and ashamed of our shaky dollar and our dependence on foreign technology, and wondering whether Canada is worth the trouble.

The late Air Vice-Marshall Fred Carpenter, whose ideas this column attempts to bring into the present debate, argued that Canada’s unique role in seeking world peace should be to lead the way in finding nonviolent ways to resolve international conflict. But I think even Carpenter would agree that if we must have fighters we should decide for ourselves what role they are to play, on the grounds that they will meet our particular defence needs. Then we should design and build them here.

I write this without the least hope that the government of Canada will put its money where its mouth is on the fighter issue. If I am right, when the question of who bears the blame for Canada’s poor image of itself arises and the politicians turn to the scapegoat media, let them turn to the mirror.

Patrick Watson isa broadcaster, novelist and pilot. Allan Fotherinyham is on assignment.