The Liberals plan to purchase 88 fighter jets lacks transparency. Even worse, new warplanes will empower a secretive branch of an institution not known for its democratic ethos.
Canada’s second largest ever government procurement is set to be made without the public knowing the likely climate impacts or lifecycle cost of the jets. Additionally, the Liberals look set to break an explicit election promise not to purchase Lockheed Martin’s F-35. But new fighter jets are also likely to undercut democratic oversight in a more fundamental way.
Air wars lend themselves to censorship. A fighter jet is usually piloted by a single individual flying far from anyone.Journalists cannot accompany pilots during their missions or easily see what’s happening. “As a result,” writes Bob Bergen, “crews can only be interviewed before or after their missions, and journalists’ reports can be supplemented by cockpit footage of bombings.”
The military has consistently blocked reporters from interviewing fighter jet pilots, as Bergen details in his doctoral thesis Balkan rats and Balkan bats: The art of managing Canada’s news media during the Kosovo air war. During the bombing of the former Yugoslavia in 1999 journalists weren’t allowed to film or access Canadian pilots flying out of Aviano, Italy. They also refused to provide footage of their operations.
For 79 days in a row a top officer gave a press conference in Ottawa detailing developments in Yugoslavia. But they often misled the public. Asked “whether the Canadians had been targeted, whether they were fired upon and whether they fired in return” during a March 24 sortie in which a Yugoslavian MiG-29 was downed, Ray Henault denied any involvement. The deputy chief of Defence Staff said: “They were not involved in that operation.” But Canadians actually led the mission and a Canadian barely evaded a Serbian surface-to-air missile. While a Dutch aircraft downed the Yugoslavian MiG-29, a Canadian pilot missed his bombing target, which ought to have raised questions about civilian casualties.
During the bombing campaign of Libya in 2011 and Iraq/Syria in 2014-16 reporters who travelled to where Canadian jets flew from were also blocked from interviewing the pilots. Describing the Iraq/Syria bombing NATO Association of Canada blogger Kelsey Berg noted, “the media has been barred from entering Canadian air bases in Kuwait, the strategic centre of operation IMPACT. This means that official DND public briefings have been the only source for news on the ongoing combat mission.”
To justify restricting journalists’ access to pilots the military claimed concern for soldiers and their families’ safety. Since the first Gulf War the military has repeatedly invoked this rationale to restrict information during air wars. But, as Bergen revealed, it was based on a rumour that antiwar protesters put body bags on the lawn of a Canadian pilot during the 1991 Gulf War. It likely never happened and, revealingly, the military didn’t invoke fear of domestic retribution to curtail interviews during the more contentious ground war in Afghanistan. During that war they took a completely different public relations tack, as I detail in A Propaganda System: How Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation. The Canadian Forces embedding (or in-bedding) program brought reporters into the military’s orbit by allowing them to accompany soldiers on patrol and stay on base. In effect, the military sought to shape the message by bringing journalists as close as possible.
Naval vessels, tanks or other types of waging war don’t lend themselves to the same ease of secrecy as fighter jets. While often far at sea, naval vessels generally have hundreds of crew members, which is an obstacle to concealing damaging information. A tank usually has multiple occupants and operates in an environment far easier to access.
With information suppression/control central to “manufacturing consent” for war fighting, the ways in which weapons systems influence these questions is no small measure. New fighter jets will strengthen a secretive element of an institution already lacking transparency and willing to subvert a key element of democracy.
On February 10 the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute will be co-hosting a talk on “Why Canada shouldn’t buy the F-35”