In the past year, Canadians have variously been informed that there would be a public competition for our next-generation jet fighter, that there was a competition (the American one which resulted in the F-35 in the first place), and that there couldn’t be a competition because there was only one competitor. The last of these is now the standard line from the military but, of course, is patent nonsense: if there is only one competitor, then presumably Lockheed Martin would have no trouble going through the formality of a competition. It’s only the largest military acquisition in Canadian history — why make it an exception to the rules on this?
It’s that last myth I’m going to take on here. Now, the F-35 is an election issue. But I have some bad news for people who are hoping that means we’ll back out of the deal. You heard it here first: we won’t. I don’t want the thing, either, but the WikiLeaks cables make clear what I think most people already knew: public competitions for large-scale purchases in the defence sector, even when they are held, are usually shams and pretences. Several of the major WikiLeaks cables make that clear, and they also make clear that the sort of PR blitz we’ve seen recently, with generals and military-funded lobby groups like the Conference of Defence Associations taking to the op-ed pages, is a common strategy which the American government supports as a means of subverting the democratic process in allied countries. Again and again, it is stressed that purchasing countries will make much money from contracts related to construction. Of course, it can’t be true that every country will get out of the F-35 more than it puts in.
As I go forward here, it is important to bear in mind that the WikiLeaks cables reveal not only that fighter competitions are heavily influenced by the U.S. government, but also that this is not done purely for strategic or diplomatic reasons. Indeed, the embassies involved often worked hand in hand with defence companies (in this case, Lockheed Martin) which stood to profit enormously from the deal. This is the classic military-industrial complex at work.
The most obvious case of manipulation in the cables occurred in Norway. Like here, the F-35 purchase was very controversial there. Unlike here, the Norwegian government did hold a competition, which matched the F-35 against the Eurofighter and the Swedish Saab Gripen. There are also Russian fifth-generation jet fighters in development, and the American F-22 Raptor, which is probably superior to the F-35 for what Canada would want it for. Neither competes in foreign purchase competitions, though, because the defence sector is not a free market. But was this a fair competition? How did Norway buy the F-35?
The answer is important because it is contained in the WikiLeaks cables, and because it helps us understand what is now happening in Canada, as well as what is likely to happen in the short-term future. In September 2008, the American embassy in Oslo fretted that the Norwegian government was getting cold feet about the F-35. “HIGH-LEVEL ADVOCACY NEEDED NOW,” warned the embassy, which believed that the political leadership had swung in favour of the F-35′s Swedish competition. America could count on the support of the air force, the embassy explained, but the air force would not be making the final decision.
In this case, American lobbying paid off. In late November, the Norwegian government selected the F-35. In public, the embassy reported, it had been very circumspect:
We opted for “choosing the JSF [Joint Strike Fighter] will maximize the relationship” as our main public line. In private, we were much more forceful.
This private “forcefulness,” another cable said, amounted to “persistent lobbying.” (Do you suppose the American ambassador is a registered lobbyist, or is he counting on his immunity from prosecution to protect him from his violations of national law?) There had been “a concerted effort by Lockheed Martin, Embassy Oslo, EUCOM [European Command], and the Departments of State and Defense” which the embassy believed “played a key role” in winning the Norwegian competition. One cable summarized just a few of the ways in which the embassy had intervened in Norwegian politics to advance the American fighter jet:
- Working with Lockheed Martin to determine which aspects of the purchase to highlight…
- Jointly develop a press strategy with Lockheed Martin…
- Use the Ambassador to give… off-the-record in-depth discussions with editorial boards on the purchase.
- Create opportunities to talk about the aircraft. The Ambassador hosted a luncheon for retired senior military and think-tankers during which an extensive presentation on the capability of the F-35 was given. This enabled our host-nation advocates to actively contribute to the public dialogue from their respective positions of authority. Embassy also coordinated with Lockheed Martin for attendance at all relevant airshows and roundtable discussions. The fighter competition was consistently a part of our informal discussions with MFA, MOD and influential think tanks.
Note the bolded part, in particular. It would be naive in the extreme to assume that American diplomats are not performing similar discreet lobbying work in Canada.
The U.S. isn’t the only one to play this game, of course — it’s just the most powerful — and it doesn’t always win, either. In Brazil, for instance, the last decade has seen an intense competition for 12 fighters (later expanded to 36), which included at various times Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Falcon and Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet. Once again, the embassy reported that the military supported the American plane, while the civilian government favoured a competitor, the French-built Dassault Rafale. The embassy saw its job as getting the military’s view to triumph over the preferences of its civilian leadership. The Brazilian defence minister privately told the embassy that the key priorities for Brazil were boosting exports of Brazilian aerospace products (i.e. Embraer aircraft) and ensuring full transfer of technology as part of a purchase agreement; if the U.S. fulfilled those conditions, they might accept Lockheed’s F-16s. Price was described as “not so important.”
As everywhere else, a high priority was to compel the local government by bringing the business community onside through generous bribes contracts. On this, the embassy admitted very early on, it dropped the ball. The French Dassault was able to bring in Brazil’s large aerospace firm, Embraer. In contrast, Lockheed approached but was for unknown reasons rebuffed by Varig. Without “a strong Brazilian mate,” the embassy predicted, Lockheed would have trouble competing. However, as of 2011, the long-drawn-out process is still undecided, with both Lockheed and Boeing still in the running.Tweet