In The Media

Feds haven’t changed perspective on F-35: Williams 

by Ally Foster

January 15, 2014

The Canadian fighter jet replacement strategy, which is nearing completion, hasn’t accomplished anything of substance and appears to be nothing more than a delay tactic, says a former assistant deputy minister for procurement.

The Harper government says it considers its “seven-point plan” to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s a comprehensive and worthwhile approach. 

But Alan Williams says after a year and a half of work, the plan has proven itself to be an expensive, unnecessary and irrelevant waste of time. 

His reasoning: The government has not made its requirements for replacing its fighter jets public, citing that it is classified information. As well, highly sensitive capability and cost data for each of the four contenders being officially considered—the F-35, the Boeing Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Dassault Rafale—wasn’t collected during the options analysis process of the seven-point plan, he said. 

Such detailed, classified information would only be required from the manufacturers during a formal competition.

“I haven’t seen anything to suggest that [the government has] changed its perspective on getting the F-35, whether or not it’s the best jet for the Canadian military and our needs, or not” he told Embassy.

“Before spending $45 billion or more of my money, I’m entitled to see why the government wants a certain jet,” he said.

Mr. Williams signed a memorandum of understanding in 2006 which allowed Canada to continue participating in Lockheed Martin’s multinational Joint Strike Fighter development program, which the country had been involved with since 1997, and which is still ongoing.

The Conservative government originally promised in 2010 that it would replace its CF-18s with 65 F-35s, and went on to fight and win a majority government mandate in 2011 partially on that promise.

But in spring 2012 Auditor General Michael Ferguson accused defence officials of twisting the procurement process in favour of the F-35 as far back as 2008. That means ministers and Parliament were misled, the auditor general said. Following the report, the government backed off its F-35 promise, pivoting to a new plan that would consider multiple options. 


 ‘Delay tactic’

Delaying any major decision until after the federal election, which is slated for 2015 but potentially could be called this year, is the government’s main objective in the plan, argued Mr. Williams. 

The plan created a secretariat housed in Public Works and Government Services Canada, and called for both a study done by the Royal Canadian Air Force as well as an independent review panel of outside experts to monitor the process. 

According to a government website, the air force has almost completed an assessment which it will present to a committee of deputy ministers. 

That committee will then present a series of possible options to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet, which will make the final decision. 

Mark Collins, a former Canadian diplomat and fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, agrees that the seven-point plan was, for the most part, just a way for the government to suspend making a decision.

“Clearly it was a delay tactic. There’s absolutely no doubt about that,” he said. 

“The question is, what will [the government] do when the report is made?”

One possibility is to delay the process so long that the F-35’s competitors simply disappear, he argued. 

Canada originally planned to start seeing delivery of the F-35 sometime between 2017 and 2023, but the program is behind schedule. Meanwhile, the Super Hornet was scheduled to end production in 2016, and the Eurofighter Typhoon may face a similar fate. 

 Other options include buying multiple types of fighter jets, or announcing an official, open competition.


Smart strategy 

For some, the seven-point plan is a step in the right direction for a defence procurement system seemingly plagued with one blunder after another. 

“It’s been a pretty solid effort to have a lot more open and a lot more credible and rigorous process of actually determining what the requirement is,” said David Perry, a defence analyst with the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

“It’s tied into what’s happening at large with defence procurement right now...with [having] the secretariat, the review, engagement with third parties, [and] having a real serious look at the requirements and what that means.”

A similar approach was taken with the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy. But, he cautioned, “if it’s not resolved expeditiously, and if it doesn’t progress quickly, I could certainly see that it could be used as a delaying tactic.”

The real goal of the plan up until this point, said Mr. Perry, has been to determine whether the Canadian government was correct when it decided in 2010 that the F-35 was the way to go. If there is evidence that any of the other three jets in the running could also meet the requirements and bring comparable benefits, then there is the chance of having a competition.

He pointed out that the government may wait until the 2014 federal budget is complete, or until the Canada First Defence Strategy is rehashed, before deciding on a course of action.The new defence strategy could confirm how many jets the RCAF now thinks it needs, and the budget could determine how many Canada can actually afford.

Elinor Sloan, a former DND analyst and now an international relations professor at Carleton University, said the process was a check against bureaucratic inertia.

“I think it was beneficial,” she said. “But I don’t think it will change the prediction is that they will not hold a competition and that they will go with the joint strike fighter.”

In response to criticism of the plan, PWGSC spokesperson Pierre-Alain Bujold wrote that the plan, “including the evaluation of options, is a comprehensive response to the report of the Auditor General.” 

The examination of the world’s market of fighter jets involved a review panel with “four highly regarded and expert members, and thousands of hours of analysis by the RCAF and the NFPS Secretariat,” all of which is being examined by independent analysts, he wrote. 

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