Washington used aggressive sales pitch to sell F-35 jets: Memos

OTTAWA—Canada may have been the target of a high-pressure sales job to buy the controversial F-35 fighter by a U.S. administration known to use “forceful” diplomacy to cement a deal, leaked diplomatic cables suggest.

Memos from the U.S. State Department reveal that Washington engaged in a carefully orchestrated campaign to persuade Norway to buy the American-made fighter jet in 2008. And praising the success of that “extensive, coordinated” effort, U.S. diplomats suggested using a similar game plan to make other foreign sales.

Two years later, Canada announced it would buy 65 F-35s at a cost of $9 billion, not including the cost of maintenance, a deal that raises questions whether Ottawa faced a similar full-court press by the U.S.

The memos, distributed by WikiLeaks, date from 2008 when Norway was deciding between the F-35 or the Swedish-made Saab Gripen jet as its fighter jet of the future.

While the notes don’t mention Canada by name, they do offer an intriguing window into the world of arms sales as government worked hand-in-hand with the private sector to secure a lucrative deal.

In this case, U.S. diplomats worked closely with officials from Lockheed Martin, the jet’s manufacturer, to combat negative media coverage, woo decision makers and publicly promote the fighter.

They even weren’t above putting Norway’s relationship with Washington on the line.

“We needed to avoid any appearance of undue pressuring . . . but we couldn’t let stand the view that the choice didn’t matter for the relationship,” one diplomatic note says.

In public, the U.S. took the line that buying the F-35 would “maximize” Norway’s relationship with the U.S. “In private, we were much more forceful,” the note says.

At one point, as debate raged and public opinion appeared to turn against the F-35, U.S. diplomats in Norway warned that intervention was needed to seal the deal.

“High-level Washington advocacy on this issue is needed to help reverse this trend,” the memo said.

After winning the Norwegian deal, one memo commends Washington’s “strong and consistent engagement,” saying U.S diplomats and defence officials “played a key role in persistently lobbying without overplaying our hand.”

According to one memo, Norway’s deputy defence minister “praised” U.S. government efforts for “being nuanced, calm and non-controversial (although persistent) in promoting the F-35.”

Asked about the U.S. strategy in Norway, a spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Canada chose the F-35 for its capabilities, not because of American arm-twisting.

“Minister MacKay and his colleagues made the decision to procure the F-35 joint strike fighter to meet the operational requirements of the Air Force,” Jay Paxton said Thursday.

“At no point did Minister MacKay feel pressure from our friends to the south to procure the F-35.”

After the victory in Norway, U.S. officials compiled a “lessons learned” memo offering suggestions for tactics that could be applied in future sales, including:

The “active involvement” of the local U.S. embassy, including the ambassador.

Coordinating the sales strategy with Lockheed Martin to best promote the fighter, including ideas to work with the media.

Creating “opportunities” to talk up the aircraft. These included luncheons hosted by the ambassador for people of influence, such as retired military staff and think-tank experts. “This enabled our host nation advocates to actively contribute to the public dialogue,” the note says.

The notes reveal the delicate line taken by American officials as they sought to push the sale “without appearing to bully or attempt to force a decision.”

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