The Real Cost of the F-35 Fighters

By Steve Plenert, MCC Manitoba Peace Programs Coordinator

Fighter jets are in the news again.

Department of Defense experts, budget experts, military experts, and politicians are weighing in on what the real costs of the fighter jets are.

But are they actually discussing the real costs – the costs that can’t

necessarily be counted in dollars?  Ten billion dollars in discrepancy alone is a phenomenal sum.  But I think that there are a host of other costs that are being missed out in the conversation:

  • What is the cost of being a people who say that the single biggest military expenditure in our government’s history is for sophisticated machines whose purpose is to kill?
  • What is the cost of allocating so much money to war fighting rather than dedicating a similar level of funding to peace building?
  • What is the cost of not noticing that almost all conflicts are concluded with negotiated settlements rather than through military surrender?
  • What is the cost of not acknowledging that the number of armed conflicts in the world has been steadily on the decline for the past twelve years?
  • What is the cost of handing over a huge proportion of our international relations budget to the military industry rather than putting it into the hands of those who can imagine and have experience in non-lethal ways of bringing about change in the world?

The costs of not noticing, of not challenging “business as usual” will be measured in lives of hundreds and thousands of soldiers that are spent in conflicts such as the one in Afghanistan and the dubiously motivated war in Iraq.

The cost will be measured in the lost lives of thousands of innocent civilians of countries who are invaded in unnecessary wars.

The cost will be measured in unrealized educational, cultural, social and economic potential because so many billions are being spent to satisfy the insatiable thirst of the war machine.

The cost will be measured in ongoing distrust between nations. How can we consider another country as a friend if we are spending a disproportionate amount of our wealth on weapons that are pointed at our global neighbours?

It is clear that Canada’s current flock of warplanes is not going to last forever.  It is clear that the F-35 is the replacement plane of choice.

What’s not clear is why such military resources continue to be necessary.  The presence of similar weaponry did not prevent the 9-11 attacks.  A “response” to the terrorists of 9-11 could have been managed without fighting the kind of war that they did.  Libya could have been transformed without the need for warplane support. Are we to believe that our “security” is dependent on the ongoing expenditure of fabulous sums on equipment like the F-35?

Not only have Canadians been left without adequate accounting for the financial costs, we have been left without any adequate explanation for the rest of the costs that will be incurred by not looking at alternative options to using military force to resolve conflicts in our world.

It is time for some accountability for all of the costs and a re-articulation of a vision for a strong, peace-building Canada in the world.

Visitors from DR Congo

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes.

In the world of advocacy, there’s a similar sort of calculus. For us at MCC, it’s the voices of our grassroots partners around the globe that give weight to our own work here in Ottawa. Their stories speak volumes.

More meaningful than any letter or brief we write on our own to the government, when MCC partners speak directly about the structural and systemic injustices they face, their words paint a picture far more vivid than any we can hope to create on their behalf.

This is all the more true in a context as complex as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Last week, as part of a longer visit with MCC staff, constituents, and policymakers in the U.S. and Canada, Sabine Muhima Bintu and Joshua Bulambo Lembelembe—two representatives from the Church of Christ of Congo (ECC), an organization with which MCC has partnered in DRC since 1960—came to Ottawa to talk with civil society groups and government officials about the urgent issues taking a toll on their country.

Just over a year ago, I had the privilege of travelling to the DRC as part of an MCC advocacy delegation. For two intense weeks, we journeyed through Kinshasa and the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, hearing first-hand stories from MCC staff and partners. While on the road, we gained a window into both the beauty of the country and the stark realities confronting the Congolese people—poverty, sexual violence, civil unrest, armed factions, and a legacy of deadly struggle over the country’s vast mineral wealth.

These aren’t easy stories to hear, but they need to be told.

This recent delegation to North America was an extraordinary opportunity for our partners to share a deeply-informed perspective on the DRC. Reverend Bulambo—Director of ECC’s Refugee and Combatant Repatriation Program in South Kivu—and Mama Sabine, past Director of ECC’s Women’s Department and former Parliamentarian for Walikale District in North Kivu—came equipped with stories about the ongoing conflict in the eastern Congo and the regional dynamics within the Great Lakes Region more broadly.

It’s a rare event that partners are able to come to us. And considering the dearth of successful visa applicants from the DRC, their arrival in Canada was no small feat!

During their brief time in our nation’s capital, we met with a range of actors on a variety of issues, from resource extraction and conflict minerals, to sexual violence against women, repatriation of ex-combatants, and Canada’s policies towards Africa’s Great Lakes.

Joined by Jean-Calvin Kitata, an exuberant Congolese colleague working with MCC in Quebec, we gathered with dedicated civil society folks working for Publish What You Pay (PWYP), Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), L’Entraide Missionnaire, World Vision, and Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI). In addition to these advocates, we met with a number of officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) representing West and Central Africa; Humanitarian and Refugee Affairs; and Democracy, Commonwealth, and Francophonie issues. We also had the good fortune to meet with a sympathetic and engaged parliamentarian with both interest and experience in the Congo.

We covered a lot of territory.

These meetings provided an invaluable opportunity for mutual learning—a time to share perspectives and discuss opportunities for mobilizing change. And, as Mama Sabine and Reverend Bulambo reminded us, to do this well we need all hands on deck.

There’s no shortage of work to be done so that the Congolese people can build a more peaceful future. Last year, the DRC topped the charts on the Failed States Index—ranking as “critically failed,” only to be surpassed by Somalia, Chad, and Sudan—while coming in dead last on the UN’s human development index.

It sounds dire. And yet, this isn’t the whole picture.

This visit was an inspiring reminder that while the Congolese state may be in critical condition, the heart of DRC’s civil society still beats strongly. Passionate, resilient, and dynamic people are dedicated to navigating their way through the complex maze of issues in search of sustainable solutions to cure what ails their country.

MCC partners like Mama Sabine and Reverend Bulambo are proof of this.

Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

The real issue behind the F-35 fiasco

A week ago Tuesday, the Ottawa Office team attended Question Period. This was the day  the Auditor General released his scathing criticism of the government’s plans to buy the controversial F-35 jet fighters.  And as was expected, Question Period was as fiery as the jets engines themselves.

Opposition parties accused the Prime Minister of dodging responsibility for the fiasco and called for the Defence Minister to be fired for allowing Defence Department officials to mislead Parliament about cost overruns and other problems with $25 billion fighter purchase.

Indeed, Mulcair, leader of the official opposition, declared: “It’s absolutely scandalous that the Canadian government would intentionally provide information that they knew to be false.”

While Government transparency and forthrightness are indeed crucial, the ensuing media storm has clouded the real issue: the only real way to reduce fighter jet expenditures is to buy fewer of them!

Thus concludes Ernie Regehr, co-founder of Project Ploughshares, one of Canada’s premier peace and security NGOs, in his article “New Figher Aircraft: 36-year-Cycle Cost Estimate Comparisons.”

Regehr shows that differing lifespans and what is included as expense are the cause of the wide-ranging, even conflicting, cost estimates thrown around by government, opposition, and media. He bases the above conclusion on significant number crunching that uses consistent lifespans and includes all costs in comparing the F-35 and a more “affordable” option.

The difference isn’t that great; thus, his statement that clears the clouds: “The only real way to save money on fighter aircraft is to buy and operate fewer of them.”

What we really need in Canada, apart from all the procurement issues, is a larger debate about military spending priorities. What is security anyway? And how is it gained and maintained? Now that’s a public dialogue I’d like to participate in!

Tim Schmucker, MCC Ottawa Office Public Engagement Coordinator

Moment of opportunity or uphill struggle?

What is the likelihood that the Government of Canada will play a more active role in efforts to ban nuclear weapons? Have you asked your Member of Parliament this question?

On March 26, I participated in a Round Table in Ottawa organized by the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (CNANW). This gathering was held the same day that Prime Minister Harper participated in a Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea.

The Prime Minister was joined by leaders from 53 countries, including U.S. President Barack Obama. I was joined by a group half that size that included representatives of CNANW member agencies, as well as staff members from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s (DFAIT) Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Division.

Our agenda included sessions on arcane topics like the Government of Canada’s involvement in the upcoming Preparatory Committee meeting for the 2015 Review Conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This discussion included input from the Honourable Douglas Roche, O.C., the Acting Chairperson of the Middle Powers Initiative, and Cesar Jaramillo, a Program Associate with Project Ploughshares, a coalition partner of MCC.

Throughout the day participants stressed that the world could be on the verge of making significant progress toward abolishing nuclear weapons, and Canada is poised to make a positive impact. For example, there is all-party support for engaging in negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention (as reflected in unanimous House of Commons and Senate motions in 2010); there is overwhelming public support for a legal ban on nuclear weapons (as reflected in a call from over 500 recipients of the Order of Canada); and, perhaps most importantly, our neighbour to the south already wants to move in this direction.

Put another way, it was suggested that this was a major “legacy issue” ready for the government’s taking that would be bigger than the Ottawa Treaty that banned landmines or the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

While the potential seems obvious, I was left wondering how to make sense of bleak assessments in the media of recent disarmament efforts. After all, regardless of the efforts being made by many for positive change, a small handful of countries have managed to stall progress for the past decade. This could be a key moment in time, but enormous challenges still remain.

More significantly for us in Canada, what are the chances that banning nuclear weapons is the kind of issue that our current government will embrace? Is this the sort of thing that is in the DNA of a government that has focused on preparing the Canadian military for combat rather than peacekeeping? Is this the kind of agenda that Stephen Harper would have been pushing in Seoul?

One response to these questions is: “We will never know unless we ask!”

We do know that in recent years DFAIT has enhanced its capacity to contribute to international forums on nuclear nonproliferation. And we also know that the global community is starting to recognize that disarmament is a precondition for nonproliferation, not the other way around as has often been assumed.

In any case, the Round Table concluded with a working session that ironed out a joint statement that has since been endorsed by 27 Canadian civil society groups. This statement was delivered today to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of National Defence, as well as to members of the House of Commons and Senate Foreign Affairs Committees. Of course, it would make for good reading for all MPs—feel free to share it with yours!

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

Crying Wolf?: Refugees at our Border

In the summer of 2010, a group of 490 Tamil migrants arrived on our pacific coast on the derelict ship the MV Sun Sea and claimed asylum in Canada. A small percent of the thousands fleeing violence and insecurity who yearly arrive at our border declaring themselves refugees.

However, the government and some media framed the Tamil arrival as the evidence of a troubling trend – smuggling and queue jumping – and argued that measures were needed to dry up the market for people willing to be smuggled.

The government claimed that too many people are coming to Canada with “bogus” refugee claims — bogus because supposedly their motivation is not for protection, but for economic opportunities.

Add to this the many unscrupulous smugglers who are taking advantage of these economic migrants, as well as genuine refugees, charging them huge amounts of money to sneak into Canada.

This then was our government’s justification for introducing measures that included mandatory detention for 12 months and limited access to appeal mechanisms. In addition, claimants would not be able to sponsor family members to come to Canada for five years.

If they were “real” refugees, the reasoning goes, they would wait in the “queue” for Canada or some other wealthy country to invite them in.

And what’s wrong with waiting in the queue anyways? That’s fair, right? Plus, waiting patiently is the Canadian way.

Well, for many refugees there really isn’t a queue to wait in. Many are in a third country that deports people seeking asylum without process.

Moreover, not all people in danger can wait patiently for Canada to decide to invite them. They fear for their lives, and so sometimes take the desperate measure of paying a smuggler significant money to take them on dangerous sea voyages to counties like Australia, Italy, Yemen, and, very occasionally, Canada.

If they go to all that trouble, is it too much to ask to hear them out and treat them humanely while they are here?

Brian Dyck, the Refugee Assistance Program Coordinator for MCC Manitoba, has written a full article – Are refugees at our border crying wolf? – explaining the birth and development of the Immigration and Refugee Board along with significant concerns with the government’s proposed legislation Bill C-31: Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act.

Essentially, Brian says, Bill C-31 would limit access to Canada’s asylum system. While this may make it more efficient, it may not make it fairer. There is a real danger that genuine refugees in need of protection will be turned away or deported.

Bill C-31 is currently being debated at second reading, and it is expected to be sent to a House of Commons committee for study later next month.

By Tim Schmucker, MCC Ottawa Office Public Engagement Coordinator