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Griping, Gripping or Gripen?

By: Tim Mahon

Canada – like every other nation on Planet Earth – is struggling to understand, cope with and mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic that has erupted over the last several weeks. In very short order, the issue has transitioned from “oh dear, that sounds serious – thank goodness it’s somewhere else” to “what do you mean, isolate myself? Lockdown? What, exactly, does that mean? Don’t you realise we are a democracy, not a police state?”

Perhaps that is a slight exaggeration: but not by very much. Europe has assumed the dubious mantle of now being the focus of the pandemic, despite its origins in China. The sense of mixed panic and outrage is palpable. Some nations, like Italy, have been harder hit than others while others, such as France, have been swift to enact almost draconian measures. The French, according to some sources, consider themselves to be basically under a loose form of house arrest. Their acceptance of the situation, however, while far from cheerful, was engendered in part by a realisation that the end of the world as we know it must be just around the corner: the nation’s Parliament has shut all its bars!

The fundamental issue – the root cause of the panic, the outrage and the sense of foreboding is, ironically enough, ignorance. Not ignorance in the boorish sense, but in the sense of not knowing. Or at least, not knowing enough. The politicians who govern the environment in which we have to live are (normally) guided by advisors with specialist domain knowledge or experience pertinent to the situation for which the poor, hapless people’s representatives are asked to make decisions: the ‘D’ word instils the fear of Irreversible Error in the current political generation. But if the advisors themselves lack the knowledge – because the science is wrong, or the threat too new, or the research not yet completed – how on earth can we expect our less experienced politicians to make the right decision?

That, arguably, is what lies at the heart of the issue and its long-term consequences. The human cost in lives lost and others ruined will be difficult enough to deal with: the consequences over time for other aspects of our existence could be even worse – some say they may verge on the catastrophic. Bringing economies and manufacturing sectors that have become accustomed to ‘just in time’ logistics, for instance, will inevitably mean they take far, far longer to return to normality than the interval for which they will have been halted. There will also be lessons learned relating to better preparations.

The United Kingdom faces a severe shortage of medical ventilators – the ‘tube down the throat’ machine that assists the chronically ill or those undergoing surgery to breathe. The current scale of issue has not been a problem till now: but faced with patients in need potentially running into tens of thousands, the 5,000 machines currently available constitutes an inadequate resource. Clearly, having a strategic stockpile of thousands more machines than are needed regularly is not an option – for pragmatic reasons as well as financial ones. The government therefore took the decision – on the surface laughable but on further analysis quite sensible – to ask major manufacturing concerns, such as construction equipment behemoth JCB, to gear up to make ventilators. A pragmatic, almost graceful solution to an entirely unexpected problem, taken after conferring with individuals possessed of the knowledge and expertise to determine what was needed and how best to achieve it.

Which is where we can bring this discussion back to what the headline promised. There is an argument that one of the key takeaways from this global crisis may (the word is used advisedly) be an improved understanding between the populace and its government coupled, perhaps (again the caveat), with a commitment by government to listen more attentively. If that turns out to be the case, then perhaps the quest for Canada’s next fighter aircraft ought to be reconsidered: clearly a ‘hard reboot’ is not on the cards, but perhaps a softer approach might work.

If, as the available information strongly indicates, Saab has worked a very attractive industrial participation component into its Gripen offer, including significant Canadian content and assembly, it is an offer that pushes many political buttons and may, therefore, receive considerable support. It may also be an aircraft better suited to the RCAF’s requirements given that those requirements may change as the almost inevitable ‘mission creep’ rears its ugly head. Wouldn’t it be nice, however – not to mention productive – if we took the opportunity to re-evaluate the balance between operational, political and industrial imperatives? In a collegial, collaborative spirit rather than a somewhat confrontational one? Involving open, transparent and well-conducted consultation with all stakeholders, abandoning preconceptions as far as human nature will allow? Is that the life lesson we can take away from COVID-19? Less griping, more gripping the opportune moment?

C’mon, people. Get a grip…..

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