John Ivison: Liberals’ jet purchase a political solution to political problem

The uncomfortable attempting to justify the indefensible. That was how it looked as government ministers Harjit Sajjan, Judy Foote and Navdeep Bains delivered the news that Ottawa will sole of 18 Boeing Super Hornet fighter jets. They appeared to be secretly ashamed at the trumpery of it all, as well they should have been.

The government had a : it campaigned on the promise that it would not purchase Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet, and that it would “immediately” launch an open and transparent competition to replace the aging CF18 fighter fleet.

But it could not risk being too open, transparent or immediate, lest the F-35 win before .

So political operatives in the Prime Minister’s Office came up with a plan so cunning, you could put a tail on it and call it a fox: buy a small number of the F-35’s competitor and push off the competition to replace the fleet for five years.

Luc Olinga-Boeing/AFP/Getty Images
Luc Olinga-Boeing/AFP/Getty ImagesA Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet at the Farnborough Airshow in July 2016.

Sajjan, the defence minister, decried the mismanagement of the previous Conservative government — “a highly politicized process” — that has left just 77 CF-18s in the fleet and no replacement jets on order. In this, he’s right but it hardly excuses instigating a repeat of history as farce.

By sole sourcing the interim purchase, the Liberals will be doing exactly what the Conservatives did when they chose the F-35 in the first place.

Sajjan waved away such suggestions. Canada has a “ gap,” he argued, and is unable to meet its Norad and NATO commitments.

He presented the new plan as a political solution to a national security problem.

The reality, of course, is that the Liberals have brought forward a political solution to solve a political problem of their own making.

The commander of the air force, Lt.-Gen Mike Hood, who was noticeable by his absence, previously told Parliament he needs just 65 aircraft to fulfil Canada’s commitments, so the capability gap argument is unconvincing. (Chief of the Defence Staff, Vance, was present at Tuesday’s press conference and said the Air Force cannot meet its current missions and have the ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances. But really, what else was he going to say? This is a political and Vance is obliged to suck it up or resign.)

Hood told a parliamentary committee last spring that he was confident the Air Force could cope, if a decision on a replacement fleet was taken “in the next five years.”

That was why Foote, the procurement minister, said the government will undertake a lengthy competition “to avoid the mistakes of the past; we will not cut corners.”

Does that mean her department is cutting corners with the new warships that just went out to tender? A for the Surface Combatant program will be chosen by 2017.

Ottawa has already held two rounds of consultations with industry on the fighters. How much more is there to learn? Alan Williams, former assistant deputy minister of materiel at the Department of National Defence, has said a competition could produce results within a year.

But that would mean a winner could be chosen before the next election — an unacceptable political outcome for the Liberals.

Hence the curious solution of Canada now “exploring” the acquisition of 18 new Super Hornets with Boeing.

“Before proceeding, the government reserves the right to decide if they can provide the interim fleet at a cost, time, level of capability and economic value that is acceptable to Canada,” said the official news release.

But surely that decision has already been taken. If there were any doubts about Boeing’s ability to deliver or about the price, why make the announcement?

Foote said the Super Hornet was chosen because it is “not in development,” a veiled reference to the F-35, even though the U.S. air force declared its first squadron of F-35A fighters combat ready in August.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickLeft to right: Chief of Defence staff General Jonathan Vance, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote at a news conference on Tuesday.

What is clear is that the interim purchase will reduce the amount available to buy a replacement fleet. The government had previously earmarked $9 billion for 65 new jets. Foote could not say what the interim purchase would cost and Sajjan would not say how many jets the Air Force might still need, after the interim purchase of 18 new planes.

But we do know Kuwait bought 40 full-loaded Super Hornets, with support, equipment and training, for US$10.1 billion this week.

We also know that the 18 jets will be more expensive than they might have been, had the downward pressure on costs of a competition not been removed.

By sole sourcing from Boeing, the government may well have skewed the outcome of any future competition. The purchase of new Super Hornets will mean the RCAF will be operating a mixed fleet. The two jets share common weapons systems but have different engines, radar and electronics. Is the government willing to complicate things further, with the attendant cost implications, of adding a third jet to the mix?

Foote said, “Anyone who meets the criteria and wants to compete will be able to compete.” Yet the Liberal platform was clear that the CF-18 replacement competition “will exclude requirements that do not reflect Canada’s interests such as first-strike capabilities” – for which read the F-35.

Yet what is apparent to anyone with eyes is that Canada’s interests have been supplanted by the Liberal Party of Canada’s interests.

We may never know which aircraft best suits Canada’s needs. But we can be in no doubt about which best favours Liberal fortunes.

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