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The “Only Choice”

Atsushi Tago and Srdjan Vucetic compare the Canadian and Japanese F-35 decisions.

By: /
15 April, 2013
By: Atsushi Tago
Atsushi Tago is associate professor of international politics, Graduate School of Law, Kobe University, Japan.
By: Srdjan Vucetic
Srdjan Vucetic is assistant professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

This essay was originally published in the Winter 2012-2013 issue ofInternational Journal

The United States has two faithful allies in Canada and Japan. Established at different points in the twentieth century, the two alliances have grown and flourished, helping to maintain an American-led order in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. By any reasonable measure, few states are as integrated in the American security sphere as these two. In David A. Lake’s index of US “security hierarchy,” which measures a variety of bargaining mechanisms through which states voluntarily trade autonomy and sovereignty for order, prosperity, and cheaper security provided by the US, Japan ranks fifth and Canada eighth.1 From this perspective, it is not surprising that Japan and Canada are participating in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. The US, as the “patron” state, provides security to Canadian and Japanese “clients,” and in return makes requirements, such as customer loyalty in the area of weapons procurement. For weaker states, the benefits of the alliance come at a price. The logic of this security hierarchy is widely understood by Canadian and Japanese pundits, many of whom like to describe the F-35 as the “only choice.” Even government officials often relate the outcome of their nations’ fighter aircraft acquisitions to alliance ties. In this article we compare the F-35 procurement processes in Canada and Japan in order to examine the relationship between procurement and alliance, and therefore the nature of what Lake calls American “political authority” in the world. Given the secretive nature of ongoing military acquisitions, we cannot directly observe how US political authority might operate in the F-35 case. Instead, we can use parliamentary and media records, as well as our own (unstructured and informal) interview data, to explore a set of ideas distilled from scholarly analyses of previous fighter jet procurements in Canada (New Fighter Aircraft program, 1977-1980) and Japan (FSX competition, 1985-1987).2 We argue that US influence in Canadian and Japanese defence policy is not a simple function of linkage politics—attempts and counter-attempts to improve one’s bargaining position on one issue by tying it to an unrelated issue.3 Rather, US influence is indirect and “distorted” through the ebb and flow of domestic politics. The fact that the politics of the F-35 in both Canada and Japan has been reduced to procedural issues suggests a high degree of elite consensus on the value of buying American-made arms; therefore, while the multiplicity of the so-called “channels of contact” remains an important determinant of military acquisitions, it is ultimately not as important as the durability of indigenous support for participation in US-centric global security architectures.

While the two alliances are similarly institutionalized in many dimensions, there are obvious limits to comparability in this particular case. Canada expressed interest in the aircraft as early as 1997, when the F-35 was still a concept. By investing millions of dollars early on, Canada won the status of “Level 3” international partner in the program, placing Canada right behind Italy and Turkey; however, not until 16 July 2010 did the Conservative government of Stephen Harper announce that Canada would buy 65 F-35s. For reasons we identify below, the proposal generated considerable controversy and remains a contentious topic in Canadian politics.

In contrast to Canada, Japan joined the F-35 program as a customer, not a co-developer, the main reason being a self-imposed restriction on joint weapon development with countries other than the US. On 19 December 2011 the government of Japan announced that it had selected Lockheed Martin’s stealth design as the winner of a new fighter jet competition. Importantly, in the mid-2000s, Tokyo’s expressed preference was for the F-22, the other stealth fighter designed by Lockheed Martin, which the US Congress refuses to sell to any foreign government.4 The Japanese government signed the actual purchase contract of the first four fighters on 29 June 2012, and it is expected that Tokyo will buy 42 F-35 aircraft in total. As in the Canadian case, the delivery deadlines and acquisitions costs remain murky at the time of writing.

Comparative Politics of Defence

In Canada, the F-35 procurement was highly politicized. The 2010 announcement of the intent to purchase the plane followed many of the standards of democratic politics under the conditions of minority government. To unveil their new fighter jet policy, the Conservative government picked a Friday afternoon and convened an offsite press conference. It was carefully choreographed: Peter MacKay, the minister of defence, Tony Clement, the minister of Industry Canada, and Rona Ambrose, the minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada (the government’s procurement authority) walked out in front of a full-sized model with Canadian markings that Lockheed Martin had shipped from Fort Worth for the occasion. Canada, the ministerial trio said, needed the F-35 not only because it was the “very best” design available for purchase, but also because Ottawa had already contributed over $170 million to its development. Thanks to these investments, Canadian companies, research laboratories, and universities had been invited to participate in, and profit from, the mass production of the fighter. Four numbers were given: Canada was to buy 65 aircraft at a projected cost of US$16 billion, which was said to include maintenance for a 20-year period beginning after 2016, the proposed year of first deliveries.

The 2010 press conference opened a Pandora’s box, demonstrating that elite consensus on strategy does not preclude elite opposition and vigorous debate on policy and procedures. The Liberal Party, then the official opposition, attacked the Conservatives for sole-sourcing the fighter aircraft acquisition, while the New Democratic Party (NDP) raised budgetary questions, and called for a general review of national priorities. In this phase, the Bloc Québécois (BQ), then the second largest opposition party in the House of Commons, did a volte-face. In the beginning, the BQ had supported the proposed purchase on the basis of a vague understanding that the federal government would be willing to direct most contracts related to the aircraft to Québec, but once the noise over the projected acquisition cost escalated, the BQ, too, called for a rethink of the F-35.5 Government officials, as well as Prime Minister Harper, consistently dismissed criticisms as unpatriotic and irresponsible vis-à-vis the aerospace industry and its thousands of workers. The F-35 procurement, the Conservatives argued, built on the 2008 “Canada First Defence Strategy,” which budgeted for a fleet of 65 “next generation” fighter jets, as well as a more specific (and still secretive) statement of requirements prepared by the military and a materiel team at the Department of National Defence (DND). Furthermore, the Conservatives added, the opposition was hypocritical, considering that Ottawa joined the F-35 consortium under the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence met a dozen times between September and December 2010 to discuss the proposed procurement in detail. The Aerospace Industries Association of Canada came out in support of the F-35, but union representatives expressed worries that “Canadian firms [would be] at the mercy of the US giant, which has a far stronger allegiance to Washington and other big military buyers than it does to Ottawa.”6 As time went on, more and more issues emerged, from the putative performance shortfalls (e.g. the single engine) and delays, to the hard-hitting news that junior DND employees were tampering with Wikipedia articles on the F-35, while their bosses put in overtime hours in order to rally assorted “stakeholders” across the country.7 In addition, public attention turned to the opportunity cost of the F-35s for a long laundry list of Canada’s military needs. To make things worse for themselves, the Harper government, together with DND, engaged in losing face-offs, first with the auditor general (AG) over the acquisition costs for military helicopters, and then with the parliamentary budget officer (PBO) over the costs of the F-35. Particularly damaging to the government was a PBO report, released on 10 March 2010, that expressed no shortage of skepticism about per-unit and life-cycle cost estimates circulated by MacKay and other ministers. Encouraged by the ensuing furore, the opposition proposed a vote of no confidence on 25 March that the government did not survive. On top of all this came a news story that one Conservative candidate had worked for CFN Consultants, Lockheed Martin’s go-to lobby firm in Ottawa, weeks before announcing he would run for the 41st Canadian parliament.8

In the end, the F-35 proved to be electorally irrelevant, as defence policy issues tend to be in democratic elections. On 2 May 2011 Canadian voters gave the Conservatives the majority of seats in the House of Commons, effectively ending the first phase of Canada’s F-35 controversy. The party’s electoral platform did not contain a set deadline for F-35 acquisition, but several signals suggested that an actual purchase contract was in the making. Julian Fantino, the newly appointed associate minister of national defence, took the spotlight as the government’s main spokesperson of the F-35. For months, Fantino struggled to deflect criticisms about the fighter jet’s persistent problems until one Friday morning in mid-March 2012, when he seemingly gave up, declaring that “all options” were again open.9

The announcement foreshadowed the publication of a report by the AG on the lack of “due diligence” in the fighter jet selection process. The media presented the report as claiming that the Harper government had “misled” the public about the figures on the estimated price of the F-35 procurement. Once again the government found itself in a shooting gallery in which the attacks on the proposed acquisition were coming constantly and from all directions. The Liberals led the attack by calling for Harper’s resignation; the NDP spoke of incompetence and tax dollar waste; pundits spun stories of undue influence of Lockheed Martin lobbying; and, for a short while, the F-35 issue became something of a scandal.10

The AG’s report ushered in the third and current phase of Canada’s F-35 controversy. Neither MacKay nor Fantino (nor, for that matter, Robert Fonberg, deputy minister of national defence) lost their jobs, but the government created a new “F-35 Secretariat” (later changed to “New Fighter Secretariat,” and still later to “National Fighter Procurement Secretariat”) to be overseen by a committee of select deputy ministers, who were to be housed at Public Works, not DND. Technically speaking, the program funding went immediately on hold, having been made contingent upon annual reports on costing estimates and compliance with existing procurement procedures. Further, in keeping with its mandate, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Accounts set out to examine the AG’s report in detail. After some memorable bravado in the initial meetings, the committee found no wilful wrongdoing on the part of the government—according to government representatives, at least.

In response to the AG report, Public Works also requested a third party audit of F-35 costs. The consulting firm KPMG was subsequently contracted to perform the audit. With key portions leaked to the press days before its official release on 12 December 2012, the 58-page report added fuel to the fire by essentially confirming PBO life cycle cost estimates.11 Predictably, the scandal escalated. Just hours after Lockheed Martin announced that its F-35 program had passed 5,000 flight hours, Canada’s National Post printed a headline: “F-35 Dead in the Air.”12 The government’s response to KPMG’s projected cost of $45.8 billion over 42 years was to backpedal. “We have hit the reset button,” Rona Ambrose said in a press conference, “and are taking the time to do a complete assessment of all available aircraft.”13 A few days later on a Sunday evening Global News program, Kevin Page of the PBO, now vindicated, flatly stated that the Harper government deliberately misled Canadians on acquisitions costs—this while sitting next to the star Conservative parliamentarian, Chris Alexander.14 Rarely does a government lose a debate so unambiguously.

Canada’s stealth fighter jet is not necessarily dead, but much political capital will have to be spent to bring it back to life. Like Australia, Canada may give up on the idea of a single-type fighter fleet and move to purchase a number of stopgap Super Hornets, while reducing and postponing the F-35 acquisition.

Thus far Canada’s fighter jet procurement process has involved an excess of politics, most of it caused by the government’s failure to assuage public concern that the military selected the F-35 aircraft without considering any alternatives and that the relevant ministries went along with that selection without proper due diligence. This failure is especially evident with reference to the last fighter jet procurement, in which Canada acquired its current fleet of CF-18 aircraft. That process took place in a considerably more politicized environment, covering the run-up to a sovereignty-association referendum in Québec, two federal elections, one government turnover, and the predictably immense amount of haggling between provinces over the industrial and regional benefits. (Between them, Ontario and Québec have four out of five Canadian aerospace jobs). Despite these pressures, decisions on the CF-18 were subject only to the politics of three ministries—DND, Public Works, and Industry; unlike today, when at least two of these ministries find themselves in opposition, the CF-18 acquisition followed a more-or-less rational process. The bureaucrats first wrote joint objectives, then held an open competition among five off-the-shelf fighter jets, before selecting a winner that was to the liking of nearly everyone involved. As Kim Richard Nossal argues in this issue, the Harper government’s “reset” takes a page straight from this book. Given that the bidding process takes time, Ottawa will probably not be able to select its new fighter aircraft until after the next election, expected to take place in 2015.

In the Japanese case, the nature of party politics has greatly changed since the FSX competition in the late 1980s. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the long-time dominant political party in Japan, lost the general election in 2009 and was replaced by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government, composed of both right-wing (former LDP) and left-wing (former Social/Democratic Socialist Party) politicians. Unlike the LDP, which is known for its pro-US stance, the DPJ lacked a consistent party position on foreign and defence policy. At one point, former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama took a clear pro-China position and seriously damaged the US-Japan relationship by his failed initiative on Okinawa’s base issue. In contrast, the former foreign minister in the Naoto Kan administration, Seiji Maehara, and the cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, came off as pro-US, anti-communist China politicians. The anti-China stance characterized the tenure of Yoshihiko Noda, who became Japan’s prime minister in September 2011.

While it is too early to know the ways in which the domestic political environment affected the Japanese procurement process, it stands to reason that a lack of consensus on pro-US defence policy in the majority party under Hatoyama and Kan may have worked in favour of the Eurofighter at first. In our estimation, however, it is more likely that the US government cleverly used the fighter competition as a test of loyalty for Japanese politicians keen to repair the US-Japan ties damaged in the Hatoyama era. The social nature of international bargaining cannot be emphasized enough: sometimes mere anticipation of patron linkages may lead to client agreement.15 Japan’s selection of the F-35 greatly improved its alliance with the United States, a fact that will likely be underscored under the new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, whose party, the LDP, regained power in December 2012.

The F-35 never became a tumultuous parliamentary topic in Japan as it did in Canada mainly because of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March 2011. The politics of national emergency that ensued focused on the recovery plan, energy policy, and consumer tax reform, leaving defence aside. Some of the credit goes to the government. By designing and executing what looks like an open and transparent selection procedure (which was somewhat novel in the Japanese case), the Japanese government eliminated potential criticism. In the mid-2000s, six aircraft were being mentioned as candidates: the Dassault Rafale; the Eurofighter Typhoon; the latest versions of the F-18 and the F-15, both offered by Boeing; and Lockheed Martin’s flagship duo, the F-22 and the F-35. By April 2011, the number was down to three: the Eurofighter, the F-18 E/F Super Hornet, and the conventional version of the F-35. In an attempt to make the procurement process open and transparent, the air force issued a request for bids, collected them, and then studied them for months. Upon completion, the chief of staff recommended the selection of the F-35 to the defence minister, who then transferred the file to the national security council and the cabinet.

According to the final report of the Ministry of Defense, the F-35 was selected on the basis of a simple scoring system: 50 points went to the aircraft performance; 22.5 to the procurement cost (including cost for maintenance and modification); 22.5 to the level of participation accorded to domestic manufacturers’ performance; and the remaining five to the easiness of maintenance and repair, as well as the quality of logistical support provided by the manufacturer.16 The F-35 scored highest on performance, costs, and logistical support, while the Eurofighter Typhoon came in second overall by winning the domestic participation category.

The Japanese news media addressed the fighter question more broadly, including everything from budgetary issues to Japan’s constitutional limits on defence policy and the related prohibition of participation in overseas military operations. While certain conservative groups were eager to amend the constitution, most commentators underscored the desirability of the status quo. Frequently discussed was the issue of performance in air sovereignty missions against threats from Japan’s larger, militarily stronger neighbours, China and Russia, both of which are developing their own next generation fighters. Here, in addition to considerable lament over the fact that the US decided not to supply the F-22, which holds the most advanced air-to-air fighting capability, there was widespread understanding that the Eurofighter bested the F-18 because of its superior high-altitude air fighting capability. Even when the competition came down to the choice between the F-35 and the Eurofighter, a number of commentators—including Masahiro Matsumura, professor of international politics at St Andrew’s University (Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku) in Osaka—argued for the latter on the basis not only of costs and technology transfer, but also of purpose, given that air-to-ground capability was somewhat redundant in Japanese strategic considerations.17

As we will show, these arguments miss the main point. The benefit of selecting the F-35 was to ensure that Japan would remain in an alliance with the US in the event of a major military confrontation in East Asia. Three dozen F-35s cannot provide Tokyo with the means to effectively defend its airspace, but they can materially and symbolically complement hundreds of combat aircraft of the fifth and seventh air forces that the US military keeps in Japan and South Korea, respectively.

Channels of Contact

In Japan, US-made fighter aircraft have long been the “only choice.” The last non-US fighter aircraft officially selected by Tokyo was the German-made rocket-powered interceptor Messerschmitt Me163 Komet, an acquisition attempted in the dying days of World War Two. In that conflict, the US ruthlessly crushed Japan’s bid for empire, but the dynamics of the Cold War led to the establishment of an alliance between the victor and the vanquished. Formed in 1954, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) still contribute to the protection and projection of US interests in East Asia, while the alliance itself continues to reflect its foundational asymmetries; indeed, limits to the right of self-defence and a commitment to the so-called “one” alliance policy were institutionalized through the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan. Today, Japan’s national security and defence policy continues to rely on US military capabilities, while the US military enjoys considerable extraterritorial rights in and around its Japanese bases.

Not surprisingly, JSDF has always bought its fighter jets from the United States. Characterizing every purchase was kokusanka (literally “domestic participation”), a policy of indigenous co-production of fighter aircraft which the Japanese government developed at the very start of remilitarization in the 1950s with the goal of maintaining “self-reliance.” In practice, kokusanka has usually come down to licensed production of US-made weapon systems, on top of the original development of some smaller parts and systems. For example, the F-4J—the aircraft that the F-35 will be replacing—was a licence-produced version of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (which the US military retired back in 1996). According to the industry news media, Japan’s F-35 contract, too, will include a deal for a domestic manufacture of key components and subcomponents, maintenance work, as well as engine assembly—a choice that will undoubtedly inflate the already considerable cost of the aircraft.18

Japan’s other fighter jet is the F-2, manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries until 2011, with 40 percent of its parts produced by Lockheed Martin. Masaru Kohno’s study of the FSX competition (1985-1987) that led to the joint development of the F-2 emphasizes the presence of extremely close contacts between Japanese and US actors throughout this process.19 The Japanese Ministry of Defence and US Department of Defense exchanged visits at the ministerial level, as well as at lower rungs, while members of the Diet and Congress communicated as frequently as did members of the two defence industries. One major departure from the FSX case is the presence of a European factor. According to several news sources, European diplomats and business officials visited Tokyo and met Japanese officials in Europe to persuade them that the Eurofighter had advantages over its American counterparts. For instance, at the G-8 summit in France in May 2011, British prime minister David Cameron met Naoto Kan to ask him to select the Eurofighter as the next generation fighter for JSDF. Furthermore, Cameron met the head of the Keidanren in July 2011 and again invoked the advantages of the Eurofighter.20 Yet the frequency and continuity of these contacts pale in comparison to those between the US and Japanese governments. For instance, there is evidence that as early as September 2007 senior leaders from US Pacific Command, the office of the secretary of defense, and the industrial representatives met with their Japanese counterparts to discuss Japan’s future air power needs and whether those requirements would be met by American fighter aircraft.21

It is likely that these early contacts influenced the current fighter jet procurement. Indeed, while the selection process can be described as open and transparent, especially in comparison to the FSX selection in the 1980s (or to the ongoing fighter jet acquisition in Canada, for that matter), we have no information on the procedure by which scores were assigned to each of the candidate aircraft, or why only the Eurofighter qualified as an off-the-shelf design.22 Further, as Kohno’s analysis shows, in the FSX selection case, the US government utilized the trade deficit problem to gain leverage in the FSX negotiation. The Reagan administration, with support from Congress, pressured Tokyo to accept US negotiation terms, and the Japanese government could not resist the American demand that it participate in a joint fighter development project. In the F-35 case, there is no explicit evidence of attempts made by Washington to link the fighter jet procurement to other issues, such as the Okinawa’s base relocation; it is not clear who, if anyone, in the US government has the authority to connect putatively unrelated issues in the context of international bargaining.23 Given the size and variety of agenda involved, however, one must remain open to the existence of strategic linkages in the case of the F-35.

In contrast to the past FSX selection, however, the role of individual leaders appears to be relatively insignificant in the F-35 case. Given the LDP’s dominance in the Diet, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone and his cabinet members had considerable political capital that enabled them to move steadily forward in the hard fighter jet negotiations with the US in the late 1980s. In the current procurement process, both Hatoyama and Kan were politically weak, as revealed by the fact that they both resigned after a year in office. More important, in the face of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami emergency, neither the government nor the opposition leaders had any incentive to politicize the fighter jet procurement.

In the Canadian case, there is no evidence that the US government linked the acquisition to any other issues in the vast Canada-US portfolio. Then US secretary of defense, Robert Gates, publicly urged Ottawa to stay the course on the F-35, as is common in international interactions of this type. The puzzling question is why the Harper government worked so hard to avoid a more traditional bidding and scoring process. Precisely when—and why—the Harper government nixed the idea of holding some sort of an open competition will probably remain unclear for some time. One hypothesis is that no such decision was ever made, and that sole-sourcing came as a result of arrogance, nonchalance, or ineptitude. At a minimum, it can be said the government underestimated the political risks of loosely managing applicable procurement rules. According to AG’s 2012 report, Canada’s participation in the F-35 consortium made it difficult to hold the open competition in practice:

National Defence’s long-standing relationship with and access to proprietary data from one of the prime contractors, coupled with the unique benefits offered only to partners, meant that other potential aircraft manufacturers would be disadvantaged from competing fairly… By the end of 2006, officials from National Defence and the Canadian Forces were actively involved in the development of the F-35. It was clearly the fighter jet of choice, and, in our view, a number of activities and decisions had put in motion its eventual procurement.24

Indeed, as soon as “Canada First Defence Strategy” appeared in 2008, DND set out to match its new fighter aircraft requirements to a selection of (unidentified) contender aircraft, reconfirming the F-35 as the preferred option. By early 2009, DND was leading the push for a sole-sourced contract according to the rationale that “a delay in this decision would lead to possible losses of billions of dollars in potential contracts for Canadian companies.”25 The report’s verdict was that both DND and Public Works failed to exercise due diligence in ensuring that the planned purchase followed all relevant legislation, policy, and departmental guidance.26

Another popular hypothesis is that Lockheed Martin’s lobbyists were especially successful in explaining the political and economic benefits of a swift sole-sourced contract to key members of the government. During discussions in the Standing Committee on National Defence, government officials expressed worries that Lockheed Martin would have shut the Canadian aerospace industry out of its supply chain if Ottawa had not committed to the F-35. Also, in December 2010, MacKay and Clement led a group of Canadian aerospace executives to Lockheed Martin’s production facilities in Texas, and they returned confident about the aircraft’s budget estimates, not to mention its superior performance. Whatever the reason or reasons behind sole-sourcing, the Harper government has come to regret it deeply. Had Ottawa issued a Japanese-style request for bids right after the Treasury Board (a cabinet-level committee responsible for accountability and financial management) released its five-year defence investment plan in 2009, the political fracas would have been avoided—even in the face of the barrage of problems associated with the stealth fighter jet.

In our reading of the two case studies, American influence was mostly indirect. In Canada, the shrillness of politics over the new fighter acquisition prices is somewhat surprising considering that almost all political actors accepted that Canada’s fleet of CF-18s ought to be replaced by a new generation of combat-capable aircraft. No major party, media outlet, or think-tank openly argued against the national pursuit of an up-to-date tactical air attack capability, which was further widely understood to be a function of a relatively small number of conventional US-made fighter jets.

The entire F-35 furore came down to the questions of accountability (i.e., sole-sourcing) and costs. (Arguably, no national media space examined in this collection has exposed so many technical details about life-cycle costing of modern fighter aircraft.) Indeed, until December 2012 all potential and actual political liabilities experienced by the Conservatives over the F-35 had to do with the procurement process, not the outcome. The decision to go back to square one complicates matters for the proponents of the stealth warplane, but the elite consensus on the necessity of buying US hardware will almost certainly not break down.

Next, consider the Canadian discourse surrounding the new fighter’s purpose. The initial government line had two abstract dimensions, economic and military. In addition to protecting aerospace industry jobs, the F-35 would significantly improve the capabilities of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), thus contributing to the RCAF’s twin missions of defending Canada and North America and contributing to international peace and security. The first mission proved to be a hard sell. Within a week following its declaration of intent to buy F-35s, the government announced that two CF-18 aircraft intercepted two Russian TU-95 Bear bombers flying “close” to the Canadian airspace. But this was just a cheap public relations stunt. Critics swiftly pointed out that stealth capability would add no advantages to close (and slow) bomber encounters over the Arctic, which had been long practiced by both NATO and Russia.27 Later on, questions were raised about the suitability of the F-35 for operations in Canada’s northern environment.

Eventually, rather than framing the F-35 as a sentinel of continental air sovereignty, the Canadian government came to emphasize international peace and security. Here, the idea of “interoperability”—which the government quickly learned to specify as “advanced” or “seamless”—became a rhetorical trump card. “It is the only aircraft that will be interoperable with our allies’ fleets,” parroted one minister after another.28 The more interoperability was used to mean “commonality” (e.g., Canada and the US flying the same aircraft), the more difficult it became for critics to counter government and DND communiqués. The alliances and partnerships the government invoked referred to NATO, even if interoperability-as-commonality was suggestive of a more exclusive club centred on the US. In a meeting with the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence on 2 December 2010, Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin’s executive vice-president and general manager of the F-35, put it thus:

While you could argue about whether or not you need it in the homeland of Canada, if you ever get into a situation where you’re operating jointly with NORTHCOM or NORAD and side by side with the US, and there is a threat, you’re going to be glad you have it. But it’s when you get into coalitions—the interoperability features of the airplane and the ability to do the kinds of missions we may be called on to do during hostilities, or in parts of the world where there are sophisticated air defences—that this particular benefit really helps.29

Burbage’s argument was convincing, since both the government and much of the opposition agreed that Canada’s international influence sprung, at least in part, from the quantity and quality of its military contributions, including especially the ability and willingness to deploy its own fighter capability overseas. Behind this thinking, as Justin Massie has argued, lies a certain concern with status. For contemporary Canadian governments, Conservative and Liberal alike, the ability to actively participate in military intervention appears to be as important as any number of diplomatic coups or the timely and effective delivery of humanitarian assistance.30 The internal logic of this discourse is powerful: if the F-35 purchase could help establish Canada as a “responsible,” “reliable,” “credible,” and even “influential” ally within the US international security network, and as an otherwise important contributor to global security, then that procurement might well be worth every penny.

A similar discourse exists in Japan. The demand for a US alliance remains high. At the very first stage of the fighter jet process, Yomiuri-Shimbun, the largest national newspaper, opined that the government should pick an aircraft that most pleases Washington.31 Interoperability made the F-35 as attractive as stealth capability. This is especially true for the naval branch of the SDF, which operates half a dozen ships equipped with Aegis, Lockheed Martin’s command-and-control naval combat system used by the US and several of its allies. Here, too, varying constructions of the threat environment are paramount. In contrast to their Japanese counterparts, who like to point to China and Russia as possible threats, Canadian politicians have been reluctant to identify other states as enemies or potential enemies, while nevertheless continuing to express the need for buying the best fighter jets for the Canadian military.32

There is one last indirect link between the US alliance and the F-35 procurement. Conventional wisdom holds that Canada “free-rides” (or “cheap-rides”) on US protection. A less conventional notion is the so-called “defence against help”—that Canada’s continuing contribution to common North American “defence” dissuades the US from offering excessive “help” in the form of regular infringements on Canadian territorial sovereignty.33 This is not simply an academic theory. As one Conservative MP put it during an exchange with a prominent citizen activist: “Do you think it’s acceptable for us as Canadians to rely on US forces to provide air sovereignty over Canadian airspace?”34 This question invokes not only a perennial trade-off between security and autonomy in alliances, but also a continuing concern with status, the overall message being that Canada cannot be, or should not be, an “also-ran” on the international stage, but rather an industrially advanced nation capable of defending itself.

That similar arguments in favour of the F-35 have been routinely made in Japan suggests that the defence against help perspective can be useful in analyzing the structures of US arms transfers. Emphasizing the agency of Ottawa and Tokyo, defence against help can be described as a combination of sovereignty-protection and responsible burden-sharing; viewed in terms of the forces of American hegemony, however, defence against help connotes bandwagoning, routine cheerleading, or, to use Lake’s terminology, compliance-for-protection contracting.


Patterns of US combat aircraft sales can tell us a great deal about the relations of authority in world politics. US alliances with Canada and Japan may be characterized by linkage politics, though not by hard, tit-for-tat bargaining. The obvious power asymmetries in these alliances limit Canadian and Japanese autonomy in defence policy, but the politics of alliance management does not reflect straightforward patron-client relations. US influence, we suggest, remains sensitive to the movements of domestic politics, as well as to the timing and sequencing of anticipated issue linkages. And though neither issue linkages nor the multiplicity of channels of contact are necessarily rival to our argument—or to one another—we hold that the past and current fighter jet procurements show that security and defence policy in Canada and Japan is largely driven by the indigenous ideas and institutions that value military contribution to US-centric regional and global orders. In other words, neither Ottawa nor Tokyo has a shortage of stakeholders interested in adding the latest American weaponry to their national arsenals for the purpose of maintaining a healthy relationship with the US.

As this issue of International Journal shows, this posture is not unique to Japan and Canada. The 2010 British Strategic Defence and Security Review declares that the United Kingdom can best retain its influence in the world through participation in US-led alliances and coalitions, which, in turn, must be maintained by more equitable burden sharing in collective defence. The review reflects an elite consensus about the general direction of Britain’s defence policy that corresponds to the Canadian and Japanese cases. By any reasonable measure, Japan’s F-35 decision will strengthen the US-Japanese special relationship. Had Tokyo chosen the Eurofighter Typhoon, an out-and-out licensed production could have been an option in Japan once again; but this choice might have been perceived not only as a move toward greater independence in Japanese security policy, but also as a sign of waning American power in East Asia. It is hard to imagine that any combination of political forces would pursue this outcome in Japan today.

A similar conclusion can be drawn about Canada. In its attempt to credibly reset the acquisition process, Canadian officials may now be collecting proposals from manufacturers, but, in all likelihood, the deck remains stacked in favour of American designs. Ottawa will probably choose a plane that confirms not only the continuity of the American alliance, but also Canada’s readiness to participate in the toughest US-led military campaigns with at least one fully combat-capable fighter jet squadron.

1. David A. Lake, Hierarchy in International Relations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009). This index prioritizes basing rights over other dimensions of international political authority exercised by the United States. Our ranking is based on the index’s mean values for 1950-2000, the top 10 being Iceland, Panama, Germany, Antigua and Barbuda, Japan, Denmark, the Philippines, Canada, Italy, and Portugal. For another take on interstate hierarchy, see Alexander Cooley and Hendrik Spruyt, Contracting States: Sovereignty Transfers in International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

2. These are, respectively, Michael M. Atkinson and Kim Richard Nossal, “Bureaucratic politics and the New Fighter Aircraft decisions,” Canadian Public Administration 24, no. 4 (1981): 531–562 and Masaru Kohno, “Japanese defense policy making: The FSX selection, 1985-1987,” Asian Survey 29, no. 5 (1989): 457-479.

3. For the definition of linkages, see Brian Bow, The Politics of Linkage: Power, Interdependence, and Ideas in Canada-US Relations (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2009). The nature of US pressure in Canada’s current fighter jet procurement process is discussed at some length in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) program. See “Runaway Fighter,” The Fifth Estate, 28 September 2012, See also Mark Collins, “And now for something completely familiar: Canada and the F-35,” The 3D blog, 27 May 2012,

4. Christopher Bolkcom and Emma Chanlett-Avery, “Potential F-22 Raptor export to Japan,” Congressional Research Service, 11 March 2009,

5. Joël-Denis Bellavance, “F-35: le gouvernement attaque le Bloc,” LA Presse, 12 March 2011.

6. Jerome Dias, assistant to the national president, Canadian Auto Workers Union, Standing Committee on National Defence, Ottawa, 25 November 2011. Early estimates of the total value of F-35 (lifespan) contracts with Canadian companies have gone up to $16 billion, which happens to be the government’s projected cost of the procurement in 2010. For a discussion of concrete figures, see Colin Horgan, “Industry Canada on the F-35 benefits,” 30 August 2012,

7. David Pugliese, “Overtime adding up on stealth-fighter PR,” Ottawa Citizen, 11 February 2011.

8. Since 2007 CFN has worked with Prospectus Associations, an Ottawa consultancy specializing in providing political access. For a glimpse into this phase of the Canadian debate, see Srdjan Vucetic, ed., “The F-35: right for Canada?” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 17, no. 3 (2011).

9. Steve Rennie, “Latest Tory line on F-35 jets: ‘All options are on the table,’” Globe and Mail, 16 May 2012.

10. According to the report, the government presented only the costs of acquisition and sustainment ($6 billion, according to DND; $9.7 billion, according to the PBO), but not those related to operation, salaries, and contingencies ($10.43 billion). See, inter alia, Andrew Coyne, “Peeling back the layers of misconduct in the F-35 fiasco,” National Post, 4 April 2012; Daniel LeBlanc, “Accept F-35s or lose regional spinoffs, DND warned in 2010,” Globe and Mail, 7 April 2012; and CBC News, The National, 7 June 2012.

11. KPMG, Next Generation Fighter Capability: Independent Review of Life-Cycle Cost, prepared for the Treasury Board Secretariat of Canada, Ottawa, December 2012, See also Annual Update, Department of National Defence, Ottawa, December 2012,

12. The front page was adorned with Lockheed Martin’s own promotional photograph of the F-35 flying against the sunset. National Post, 7 December 2012.

13. Rona Ambrose, statement to the press, as quoted in John Geddes, “A clearer path for fighter jets, but a grim day for Peter MacKay,” Maclean’s, 12 December 2012.

14. Video of the 16 December 2012 broadcast is available at The next day, one new media outlet declared Page “newsmaker of the year,” describing him as “the best opposition member never elected to Parliament.” Althia Raj, “Kevin Page, Huffington Post Canada’s news story of 2012,” 17 December 2012,

15. Noda reportedly reckoned that “buying American” would score him points with US president Barack Obama. “Noda seiken: gaiko-no-paipu-hosoku [Noda administration: With thin diplomatic channels],” Mainichi-Shimbun, 31 October 2011.

16. “Koku jieitai no jiki sentoki no sentei ni tsuite [Official statement regarding F-X selection of Air Self-Defence Forces],” Ministry of Defense, Tokyo, 20 December 2011,

17. Masahiro Matsumura, “Jiki sentoki no chotatsu kishu teian [A policy proposal for selection of the next generation fighter jets],” RIPS Seisaku Teigen 10, 10 August 2010.

18. Kokusanka-driven defence production has always been an economic nightmare, made significantly worse by Japan’s self-imposed prohibition on arms exports. With the growing constraints on the national budget, Tokyo has been considering two new policy directions: a move toward off-the-shelf imports and away from co-production deals, and the lifting of the arms export ban. The F-35 acquisition has already been implicated in both of these debates.

19. Kohno, “Japanese defense policy making.”

20. “Cameron, Keidanren chief discuss Japan-EU economic pact,” Mainichi Daily News, 8 July 2011.

21. “United States, Japan to hash out future air power options next month” Inside the Air Force, 17 August 2007.

22. Yoshitomo Aoki, “F-35 Kiso-chishiki [Basic facts about F-35],” J-Wings 163 (2012): 5-9.

23. Linkage politics is usually a function of the specific bargaining context within particular issue areas. Kohno, “Japanese defense policy making”; Bow, Politics of Linkage, 166–72.

24. “Replacing Canada’s fighter jets,” paras. 2.45 and 2.49, in Spring 2012 Report, chap. 2, Office of the Auditor General of Canada, Ottawa, 2012,

25. Ibid., para. 2.54.

26. DND, the auditor general concluded, failed to explain to decision-makers the “unique aspects” of the F-35 acquisition, as well as the assorted risks that came with it; Public Works “relied almost exclusively on assertions by National Defence and endorsed the sole-source procurement strategy in the absence of required documentation and completed analysis.” Ibid., paras 2.80 and 2.81.

27. Susan Riley, “The Russians aren’t coming,” Ottawa Citizen, 27 August 2010; CBC, “NORAD downplays Russian bomber interception,” 25 August 2010.

28. Rona Ambrose, speaking on business of supply/government orders, House of Commons, Ottawa, 18 November 2010.

29. Evidence, Standing Committee on National Defence, Parliament of Canada, Ottawa, 2 December 2010,

30. Philippe Lagassé and Justin Massie, “Tories and Grits are as one on defence policy,” Globe and Mail, 4 April 2010; Justin Massie, “Bandwagoning for status: Canada’s need of the F-35,” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 17, no. 3 (September 2011): 256–69.

31. “Jiki-sentoki: Nichi-bei domei humaeta kisyu-sentei-wo [F-X selection: We must select one with keeping in mind of US-Japan security alliance],” Yomiuri-Shimbun, 26 August 2007.

32. In the parliamentary statements we analyzed, threats were identified precisely twice, and only indirectly. LaVar Payne, a Conservative member of the Standing Committee on National Defence, argued that Canada needs the F-35 because “the Russians and the Chinese also have stealth aircraft.” Statement on business of supply/government orders, House of Commons, Ottawa, 18 November 2010. Dominic LeBlanc, a Liberal MP, suggested that the “integrity of the F-35 program” was compromised by “Chinese espionage.” Debates, House of Commons, Ottawa, 16 February 2012. By comparison, members of the military brass, such as air force commander Lieutenant-general Andre Deschamps and General Thomas J. Lawson, the deputy commander of NORAD and chief of the defence staff as of August 2012, were keen to talk about Russia and China as potential threats.

33. Philippe Lagassé, “Nils Ørvik’s defence against help: The descriptive appeal of a prescriptive strategy,” International Journal 65, no. 2(2010): 463–74.

34. Statement by Laurie Hawn, Standing Committee on National Defence, Ottawa, 15 September 2011.

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