Australian Fighter purchase is about saving face

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OP-ED

by Al Stephenson

Frontline Defence
January 10, 2018

Having created a farce of their own design by insisting Canada needed the sole-source purchase of Super Hornets, the government continues to dig itself deeper. The Trudeau government is willing to squander precious defence dollars on purchasing used fighters for partisan purposes. With its announcement in early December to buy used Australian F-18s, Canadians are still confused regarding the so-called ‘gap’ that these fighters are needed to fill.

When challenged, DND states that “for reasons of operational security the RCAF cannot comment further.” This is overt obfuscation and Minister Sajjan refuses to provide any reasonable explanation for the singular increase in force-readiness that he has demanded of the CF-18 fleet to meet all contingencies simultaneously. Has there been any change in the geostrategic environment to trigger this new requirement? No – no other allied nation has followed suit. Has the Minister increased the readiness of any other Canadian military fleet? No – all other readiness levels remain normal.

When the Super Hornet interim buy was announced, it immediately drew overwhelming criticism due to its lack of transparency and evidence. In order to support this decision, Minister Sajjan made use of alternative facts to create a capability gap that the government alleged demanded this drastic interim measure. Until that point, the Commander of the RCAF was confident the CF-18s would meet operational needs until 2025 before the government “changed the policy with the number of aircraft I have to have”.

Despite the negative assessment of most academics and experts to the government’s plan – including 13 former RCAF commanders who publicly stated that an interim purchase was not necessary at all – the government was determined to move ahead. That was until the Super Hornet’s manufacturer, Boeing, successfully petitioned the US Commerce Department to impose a countervailing duty on Bombardier’s C-series aircraft. Once Boeing’s complaint was negated by a deal between Airbus and Bombardier, the government walked away from the US government-approved purchase of Super Hornets with mock indignation. What happened to the capability gap that was so imminent as to require the $7B sole-source purchase of Super Hornets?

From their stated budget and competition timelines, it is evident that the government never intended to provide the funding for the full fighter replacement in the near-term. The evidence also points to the unsettling realization that the government was willing to use the fighter force as a ‘sacrificial lamb’ in the Bombardier/Boeing dispute, and intended to draw $7B from the fiscal framework of the permanent replacement for the CF-18s to support this veiled intercession. Despite all the evidence against the Super Hornet purchase, it was the pawn being offered by government as an incentive to Boeing to leave Bombardier alone. In effect, a federal subsidy in disguise.

The debate over the CF-18 replacement has never been about filling a military need. It has been all about fulfilling misguided political promises and solving the government’s parochial socio-economic issues over defence requirements. The evidence leads to the conclusion that the government has been deliberately distorting analysis to firstly favour the purchase of Super Hornets and secondly to further delay the promised competition.

Three key actions provide evidence of the government’s deliberate manipulation of the process: (1) the parliamentary defence committee’s report that intentionally shaped the Super Hornet purchase plan; (2) Minister Sajjan’s alternative facts that created the capability gap; and (3) the immediate reversal of the Super Hornet purchase once it became known Boeing could not be bought. Although the government may have wanted to “invest in new planes”, Minister Sajjan’s response to questions on 12 December, saying that the Australian “option wasn’t available at the time” is yet another bold-faced … terminological inexactitude.

As the former RCAF Commanders pointed out in their open letter to the Prime Minister, purchasing legacy Hornets made the most sense “if your government feels compelled to acquire additional fighters for the interim.” This followed their “serious misgivings about the use of a ‘capability gap’ as the basis for your interim plan.” Given the military would normally quietly procure used equipment for sustainment purposes, the announcement of the Australian fighter purchase was all about the government saving face at taxpayers’ expense regarding the fictitious gap, while the reference to ‘economic harm’ was a puerile attempt to deflect the issue from a case of government manipulation of the procurement process to one of economic indignation.

An interim purchase was never needed; only judicious decision-making, free from politicization by government decision-makers. Continuing this course by unnecessarily spending money on used fighters and not moving quickly to competition will only exacerbate this sad comedy, with increased loss of government credibility and integrity.

Alan Stephenson, CGAI Fellow

Image credit: istimewa

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