Op-ed

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Super Hornet decision the best of some bad options

by Brett Boudreau

The Hill Times
November 30, 2016

The decision to upgrade some worn CF-18 jets and buy 18 Super Hornets as an interim measure ahead of an open, five-year competition for a long-term solution looks to be a preferential option in a set of unpalatable choices.

The intemperate Liberal election promise not to buy the F-35 has come face to face with the reality that it will be the future main fighter of the U.S. for the shared defence of North America, as well as being the choice of at least a dozen of our allies. The economies of scale from huge production runs means the F-35 will be less expensive over a full 30- to 40-year life cycle than other options, and when fully operational, will have by far the most advanced capability.

Attention now has settled on the painfully long time to hold a competition, meant to start around spring 2017, after the defence policy review. Ostensibly, five years is needed “[to] get this right,” according to the trio of responsible ministers.

Half a decade more to reflect—and add to information already gleaned from multiple competitions in other nations that all chose the F-35, the Canadian independent review panel report two years in the making, and further engagement with aircraft producers after the Liberals took office. By that timetable, the competition will finish in spring 2022, some two and a half years after the next federal election, set for October 2019. On the surface, this looks to be a conveniently timed, politically motivated punt of a wicked problem. It also does not do much to restore public confidence in military procurement reform efforts to date. 

Perhaps, though, there is another unstated variable: the F-35 can fly but is not ready for combat, so would lose in a head-to-head competition held today or in the near future assessing proven now not future prospective capability. The F-35 is still in development and it will be years before it can deploy in numbers and be used with confidence on the full range of missions. Giving it breathing space to become fully operational puts it in a considerably better position in a fair competition down the road.

The wasted time, money, and staff effort on this eternal and infernal debate is a direct consequence of bad behaviour and bad choices by National Defence, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the previous Conservative government.

They short-circuited the procurement process; concocted a too-clever ploy to eliminate contenders by making stealth a must-have requirement instead of a scored feature; broke their own rules about how to account for costs; verbally attacked officers of Parliament including the auditor general; and buried the one report that might have helped their case—the still-classified independent review panel study. Many senior military and DND officials resented being challenged to explain and defend their process, analyses, risk assessments, and cost calculations to independent observers and bureaucrats outside the department. They “knew better” and made DND look deliberately intransigent—to the public, central agencies, Parliament, and to departments trying to save them from themselves.

However ugly the decision, it marks the greatest good for the greatest number of the realistic options. The upshot is a strong commitment to fund an updated fighter capability for the long term. The RCAF will have a refurbished CF-18 fleet and take delivery of a proven, highly capable platform in the Super Hornet. We remain in the U.S.-led F-35 program, so can be part of developments there. Canadian companies are expected to retain industrial benefits from F-35 contracts already awarded, will receive work to refit the aging fighters, and obtain some benefit—unspecified as yet though probably limited—by buying Super Hornets. In time, the F-35 will have been used in domestic and possibly international operations, and be the leading contender in a Canadian competition. 

It may be small comfort to industry executives having to make costly decisions about infrastructure and staff investments to compete for additional contracts on the trillion-dollar-plus F-35 program. But at least there will be an open competition, this time with the hallmarks of being fair, not fixed.

Going forward, Lockheed Martin needs to continue to resolve outstanding problems with the F-35, as detailed by the Pentagon’s test and evaluation office. It also needs to show that the plane can regularly and consistently do what its advocates say it can, on actual domestic and international operations including in the North, as well as in dangerous, contested airspaces.

Amongst all the uncertainty, what is clear is the next five years working in the fighter project management office will test that staff’s fortitude and ability to live the RCAF motto, Per ardua ad astra, “through adversity to the stars.”

Brett Boudreau is a retired colonel and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He served with the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat for a year as that office began its work.

Image: Department of National Defence

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