At what point does ‘interoperability’ simply mean buy American?

A military concept few have heard of is shaping Canada’s second largest ever government procurement. Ottawa is planning to spend tens of billions of dollars on 88 new fighter jets largely to serve the god of “interoperability”.

At its most basic “interoperability” means the ability for military forces to act together seamlessly because their doctrines, processes and equipment are compatible. In Canada’s case it means purchasing equipment that empowers the US war machine.

At the 2017 Dubai Air Show Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force Michael Hood Michael Hood said interoperability was “the most important thing” in determining the purchase of a new fighter jet. “Every step less of interoperability is one step less of effectiveness, so interoperability is right at the top of the list beside operational advantage”, Hood told Defense News. In a 2018 Skies Mag article headlined “RCAF hints at capabilities that may guide future fighter acquisition Avatar” Chris Thatcher points out that “a critical requirement of the next fighter jet will be interoperability with NORAD and NATO partners.”

French based Dassault’s Rafale failed to make the final stage of the jet procurement competition due to concerns over its ability to be interoperable with the US military. China’s Chengdu J-20 and Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 were never considered at least partly because they wouldn’t be interoperable with US weapons systems.

Saab’s Gripen, Boeing’s Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 are the three jets that have made the final round of the procurement competition. Even though it’s cheaper, the Gripen is unlikely to be chosen due to interoperability concerns with the Swedish made jet. The two front runners are the F-35 and Super Hornet, which are both produced by US-based firms.

The more emphasis placed on interoperability by Canada and other NATO members the better for US arms manufacturers. Not only does the US have by far the most advanced military, the US Congress restricts foreign weapons purchases, so NATO standardization overwhelmingly takes place on US terms.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has tied most NATO members to the US company’s US$1.7 trillion program. Governments purchase the incredibly expensive planes and Lockheed directs business to companies in participating countries. While the federal government has yet to select a new fighter jet, Canada has already spent over US$600 million on the F-35 project.

The federal government is likely to choose the F-35. But the single-engine jet is incapable of flying long distances, which lessons its usefulness in the north. None of the possible fighter jets will aid with ever worsening climate induced forest fires or floods or be able to detect viruses such as the SARS‐CoV‐2 coronavirus. To put it bluntly, the warplanes are of little use with this country’s real security concerns and take public resources away from mitigating the climate crisis.

The quest to stay interoperable with advanced US military technology isn’t cheap. The new fighter jets are expected to cost $19 billion upfront and $77 billion over their full life cycle. After some interoperability hiccups during the bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1999, notes historian Desmond Morton, “Canada is spending $1.3 billion on an Incremental Modernization Program to update as many of our aging fighters as the government thinks it can afford.”

The search for interoperability has repeatedly been used to justify participating in belligerent US-led missions. Militarists justified Canadian jets bombing Iraq/Syria between 2014-16 on these grounds. In a story titled “A military perspective of Canada’s mission in Iraq” former Brigadier-General Jim Cox wrote, “the Canadian Armed Forces reap enormous professional, doctrinal and industrial benefits from remaining interoperable with US forces in all five domains of modern warfare: land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.” In explaining the Canadian Navy’s role in enforcing brutal sanctions on Iraq during the late 1990s and early 2000s Defence Minister Art Eggleton said, “this operation is extremely beneficial in ensuring our interoperability with our allies and particularly the United States. It will further strengthen our navy’s relationship with the U.S. Navy.”

The Canadian Forces’ are fixated on interoperability. “Maintaining interoperability [with the US] is the key to the future relevance of the CF,” noted the Chief of Defence Staff in his 2002 annual report. The government’s 2017 Defence Policy statement cited the importance of being “interoperable”/“interoperability” with US and NATO forces at least 19 times.

When it comes to purchasing fighter jets interoperability will be more important than cost, Canada’s geography or real security threats. It’s almost as if our military wishes it were American.

 

Beginning on Monday, a week of protests across the country will take place in opposition to the government’s plan to purchase 88 new warplanes. Please join one of the protests.

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