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Ottawa relaunches the process to buy 88 new fighter jets

by Bruce Campion-Smith (feat. Dave Perry)

Toronto Star
December 12, 2017

OTTAWA—Ottawa is launching yet another process to buy fighter jets and it’s putting prospective bidders on notice that it intends to weigh a company’s “economic harm” to Canada when it comes to picking a winner.

That’s a not-so veiled threat at Boeing, which has landed in Ottawa’s bad books for its trade challenge of rival plane-maker, Bombardier.

While the line-up of high-powered cabinet ministers didn’t single out Boeing at a news conference Tuesday, the aerospace giant hung over the announcement, in both the new policy to guide the purchase of new fighters as well as the government’s decision to buy 18 used F-18 fighters from Australia as a stopgap to bolster the existing fleet of aging aircraft.

It was just a year ago that a similar line-up of ministers appeared at a news conference to declare Ottawa’s intention to buy 18 new Boeing-made Super Hornets in a sole-source contract, declaring the urgent need to fill the air force’s “capability gap.”

Early this year, Sajjan ruled out second-hand aircraft for the Royal Canadian Air Force. “We do not want to buy used equipment; we want to invest in new planes,” he said in May.

But now Super Hornets are off the radar screen and instead Ottawa has decided that vintage jets flown by the Royal Australian Air Force for the last 30 years are better option for the air force.

So what changed?

Boeing’s trade challenge early this year of U.S. sales of C-series commercial jets — made by Canadian-based Bombardier — angered federal politicians. They were defiant that they would not buy Super Hornets as long as the American aerospace giant pursued its trade spat.

That unhappiness was apparent Tuesday as Carla Qualtrough, minister of public services and procurement, declared that the government would be adding a new measure to evaluate bids for the fighter jet procurement — “an assessment of bidders’ impact on Canada’s economic interests.

“When bids are assessed this will mean that bidders responsible for harming Canada’s economic interests will be at a distinct disadvantage,” Qualtrough told a news conference.

She made clear that the government is hoping the new policy is an incentive for companies to “behave in such a way that they won’t be at a disadvantage.”

However, Boeing has already signaled that while it respects Ottawa’s decision to forgo the Super Hornets, it won’t back down on its trade challenges. “Our commitment to creating a level playing field in aerospace remains,” the company said in a statement last week.

The tortured process to buy new fighter jets has been marked by fits and starts over successive governments.

The previous Conservative government had originally announced its intention to buy 65 Lockheed Martin F-35s in 2010, but then put that decision on hold in late 2012 after the auditor general flagged concerns about the potential price tag.

During the 2015 federal election, the Liberals declared that the controversial F-35 would not be a contender for the air force, a vow they have now overturned with their declaration Tuesday that “no firm will be excluded” from the competition.

Now, the contract for new fighters is expected to cost as much as $19 billion with the first deliveries possible by 2025.

Defence expert Dave Perry said this procurement now ranks as among the worst. “This one is kind of the worst poster child for what can go wrong for Canadian defence procurement. Seven years ago a different government was announcing a different way forward on this . . . we’re still seven years away from getting new aircraft which is just crazy,” said Perry, of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

The second-hand Australian jets, similar to Canada’s CF-18s, are expected to enter service here in 2019 with all aircraft in service by the end of 2021. The used fighters and spare parts are expected to cost about $500 million.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, who last year cheered the plan to buy new Super Hornets, said Tuesday that the decision to buy secondhand was “welcome.

“Make no mistake, these aircraft will work fine and those aircraft are very much needed,” Vance said.

He said the air force lacks the capability to meet commitments to both NORAD — the North American defence — and NATO with its existing fleet of CF-18s.

“The RCAF cannot concurrently meet those obligations now without some form of supplemental capability until a future fighter fleet is in place. The acquisition of Australian F-18s is a logical choice,” Vance said.

The Australian fighters are the same era as Canada’s existing fleet of CF-18s but will still require some modifications before they enter service.

But Perry cautioned that Canada’s fleet of aging fighters will be less capable and less reliable compared to the more modern jets flown by allies.

“Jets that are 30 or 40 years old don’t have the same kind of ability to detect enemy aircraft at range . . . fly through air defence networks, share information from other planes, other ships,” Perry said.

The announcement was the subject of barbed exchanges in the Commons during question period.

“If the Prime Minister is so keen on buying fixer-uppers, will he come over, because I have an old minivan I would love to show him,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said.

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it was the Conservative government that botched the jet purchases.

“The previous Conservative government made such a mess of buying the needed fighter jets that we can no longer match our NORAD and NATO obligations, which is why we need an interim fleet replacement while we proceed to the open and transparent competition that it should have held almost a decade ago,” Trudeau said.


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