Ottawa should hold an open and transparent competition for a new fighter jet, as promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Sun., June 19, 2016
Few countries – if any – can match Canada’s embarrassing record of botched military procurement.
Replacing a fleet of decrepit Sea King helicopters became a decades-long farce. Our four leaky submarines, bought on the cheap from Britain, spend more time under repair than at sea. The process of buying a new fighter jet has stalled. And a host of other military purchases, large and small, have been undermined by intolerable delays, mismanagement, pointless secrecy and rank political opportunism.
Sadly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears bent on maintaining this sorry tradition in replacing Canada’s aging CF-18 fighter aircraft.
Stephen Harper’s government had proposed buying Lockheed Martin’s F-35 “stealth” fighter. The Conservatives did so on the basis of confidential reports and without holding an open competition. Harper invested considerable political capital in this ill-judged choice, only to have a final decision put on hold due to soaring costs and mounting delay.
During the last election campaign Trudeau promised to cancel purchase of the F-35 and pledged to hold an “open and transparent competition” to find the fighter jet that best suits Canada’s needs.
A truly unbiased contest, one that included the F-35, would be the optimum way to proceed. But that seems unlikely to happen.
Trudeau recently declared the F-35 “a plane that doesn’t work” while his ministers have been retreating from the commitment to hold a full and open competition. Instead of reiterating this promise, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has expressed a pressing need to close an air force “capability gap.” As the CF-18 fighter ages out there’s worry that Canada may not have enough planes to meet its NATO and Norad commitments.
While the government insists no decision has been made, there’s very real concern that it will respond by hastily purchasing the Boeing Super Hornet without bothering to hold a competition.
In doing so it would close the supposed “capability gap” by opening a huge credibility gap in its own good judgment. In effect, Trudeau would replace Harper’s secretive sole-source deal to buy F-35s with a secretive sole-source purchase of another plane. And that’s no step forward.
Making matters worse, the Liberal case for taking such action is unconvincing. For a start the F-35 is flying — it took part in its first international air show earlier this month and more than 170 have been built, with testing and training underway by air forces in the U.S., Britain, Australia, Norway and the Netherlands.
Trudeau is wrong in flatly claiming the F-35 “doesn’t work.” Despite past development woes, it may yet be the best choice for Canada.
Furthermore, considerable doubt has been cast on the risk posed by Sajjan’s imagined “capability gap.” Canada’s CF-18s may be old, dating back to the 1980s, but they’ve received considerable upgrades over the years and remain combat-ready. With continued upgrades the fleet could serve until 2025, almost another decade.
According to Alan Williams, former assistant deputy minister for materiel at the Department of National Defence, that’s ample time to hold an open competition. As reported by The Canadian Press, he says it’s “100 per cent not true” that Canada must rush into a sole-source deal.
This country’s interests would be best served through an even-handed contest between manufacturers of the F-35, the Super Hornet, and any other aircraft-maker willing to engage in a competitive dogfight for Canada’s business. If the F-35 truly doesn’t work, it won’t be selected.
The Trudeau government will need to do a far better job of explaining its action should it opt to scrap a promised open competition. Raising the unconvincing spectre of a “capability gap” won’t dispel a nagging suspicion that shooting down any consideration of the F-35 would have more to do with partisan politics than sound military planning.
A rushed, sole-source contract would ill-serve both taxpayers and the men and women of the air force who stand on guard for this country. It wouldn’t make tactical or strategic sense. But it would be entirely in keeping with Canada’s sorry history of bungled military procurement.
Stealth is already becoming obsolete as the new radars on the MiG-35 and PAK FA can detect stealth. Especially for the F-35 with only frontal stealth!
Lockheed Martin’s F-35: Details
Boeing F-18 Advance Super Hornet: Details
Boeing F-18 Super Hornet: Details
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