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Analysis: New phase in public relations war over F-35 jets


Friday gathering in Ottawa will be part of what is being called the Global Mobilization to Stop Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the F-35.

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Members of the Ottawa Peace Council will on Friday head to the Lockheed Martin Canada headquarters on O’Connor Street to protest the Liberal government’s decision to purchase that company’s F-35 stealth fighter.

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The gathering is part of what is being called the Global Mobilization to Stop Lockheed Martin, a series of at least nine protests in various cities around the world to highlight the company’s role as the largest weapons producer in the world.

The F-35 is expected to be featured prominently at the various protests, including in Toronto, as the public relations war over the jet enters a new phase.

The Liberal government announced March 28 it was entering into negotiations to buy the fighter plane, retreating on Justin Trudeau’s promise Canada would never acquire the aircraft he claimed didn’t work and wasn’t needed.

In the lead-up to the proposed $19-billion deal, there have been duelling narratives on social media and in mainstream news outlets.

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Social activist groups have held webcasts to drive home their contention the F-35 will be a money pit for taxpayers. They have cited concerns by U.S. lawmakers, including those from March 2021 when Adam Smith, head of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, called for the F-35 program to be shut down. The aircraft “doesn’t work particularly well” and is too expensive to maintain, he noted. “I want to stop throwing money down that particular rathole,” Smith said.

The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom argues the money can be better spent elsewhere to help Canadians. For instance, it noted, the $19 billion could finance 15 state-of-the-art health-care complexes; or 760 Indigenous wellness centres; or 240 new high schools; or 130 kilometres of light rail transit; or 87,842 green affordable housing units.

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Lockheed Martin has been conducting its own PR campaign, promoting the industrial benefits associated with the new jets. A recent CBC TV piece highlighted how the Nova Scotia town involved in the building of the famed Bluenose schooner is now home to a firm that manufactures F-35 parts. Canadian analysts closely tied to National Defence have been promoting the plane as a high-tech “flying computer,” which once had major technical problems but is now working flawlessly.

Also firmly in the F-35 camp is former Lockheed Martin test pilot Billie Flynn. Flynn, who left the firm in October 2020, promotes Lockheed corporate talking points mixed with conspiracy-fuelled rhetoric. A Quebec journalist who wrote in favour of the Super Hornet, the F-35 rival, produced a “turncoat article” and had been “bought off,” Flynn claimed.

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Flynn has alleged a former Liberal MP associated with the fighter jet file was “in bed” with Boeing but has provided no proof. The test pilot also suggested Lockheed’s rival Saab was engaged in bribery, hinting — without proof — that might have taken place in the Canadian jet competition.

Flynn ignored Lockheed Martin’s past history of bribery scandals. Lockheed was involved with bribery in Egypt, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and Germany to win contracts for military aircraft in the 1960s and 1970s, according to CorpWatch, a U.S. research group that exposes corporate malfeasance. For instance, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation lost a $1.3 billion order for new airplanes because of its involvement in a payoff scandal, Japanese government officials told the New York Times in February 1976.

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As a result of the scandals, the company’s chairman and president resigned and the U.S. government brought in the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a law that made it illegal for American companies and officials to bribe foreign government representatives.

This newspaper, Flynn alleges, promoted a conspiracy when it correctly reported Lockheed could face the same “economic harm” penalties that rival Boeing might have faced under the Liberal government’s new procurement policy.

The next step in the F-35 PR battle will focus on selling the plane to the public by using the threat from Russia and China. Some analysts have already highlighted the need for the F-35 to fight off a supposed coming Russian invasion of Canada’s Arctic.

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In addition, the Liberal government has used the Russian invasion of Ukraine to justify its purchase of fighter. Flynn has pushed the claim the F-35 is designed for the type of war now being fought in Ukraine.

But Dan Grazier, an F-35 critic at the Project on Government Oversight in the U.S., has written that the Russians have little to worry about from the stealth fighter. To make his point, Grazier cited an internal Pentagon report warning about repeated F-35 breakdowns and a lack of spare parts. “Despite more than 20 years and approximately $62.5 billion spent so far on research and development alone, program officials still haven’t been able to deliver an aircraft that can fly as often as needed or to demonstrate its ability to perform in combat, which places military personnel in jeopardy,” Grazier wrote in a report for POGO last month.

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