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Are the liberals planning a 'stealth' F-35 purchase?

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OP-ED

by Brett Boudreau

iPolitics
July 20, 2016

Major defence purchases continue to bedevil federal governments, no matter their stripe. The Sea King replacement earned its title — “worst procurement in Canada’s history” — but the F-35 is now the poster child for the country’s dreadful equipment acquisition situation. Still, the plane does fly — and cuts a beautiful profile, as seen last week at the Farnborough Air Show.

It’s hard to see a way forward through the policy conundrum caused by the Liberals’ election vow to not buy the F-35 while holding an open and transparent competition; these are two incompatible positions. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has signalled an interest in Boeing’s Super Hornet as an interim fix, having suddenly discovered a fighter “capability” gap. Officials have asked again for technical information from potential suppliers on short notice, respecting cost, capability and industrial benefits.

On the surface, this suggests the file is still in considerable disarray. More worrisome for ardent F-35 proponents is the sense that these developments signal Prime Minister Trudeau intends to keep his election pledge to choose a different fighter aircraft.

And that may well turn out to be true. On the other hand, it’s important to remember how the disastrous management of several large defence equipment buys — but particularly the F-35 file under the Conservatives — has damaged public faith in the process. The federal government’s current approach suggests an effort to recover that faith.

It may also be a way to keep open the possibility of an F-35 purchase years in the future — even if it’s part of a more expensive mixed fleet.

The RCAF’s original Statement of Requirements (SoR) setting out mandatory and desirable capabilities included stealth as a must-have — thus excluding all fighters but the F-35. The necessity of stealth capability was harped on repeatedly by consecutive Conservative defence ministers, senior military officers and Lockheed Martin.

In the public’s mind, this signalled the goal was not to satisfy domestic and bi-national NORAD defence requirements but to obtain first-strike attack capability — and that no other factor had merit in the decision. Boeing could have offered Super Hornets for a dollar apiece, built the planes in Canada and offered free maintenance forever — to no avail.

The project’s downward spiral began with the fixation on stealth. A crash landing became inevitable thanks to DND’s fudged costs and its regular attacks on process critics, including the Auditor General, the Parliamentary Budget Officer and former defence procurement head Alan Williams.

If the Liberals want to have any hope of acquiring the F-35 (once major technical issues are ironed out, costs are completely under control and the plane is proven successful in actual combat missions) they’ll need to reset the discussion and address four major negative public perceptions created by the previous government’s machinations over 2010-2014. In fact, a desire on the government’s part to keep the F-35 option open may explain its recent pronouncements.

First, the Canadian public needs to be reminded of why we need fighters, and to be told that in the absence of timely action, a serious capability gap is certain. The CF-18s are being used on operations more frequently than expected — and a second refurbishment program becomes prohibitively expensive around 2025. This makes an interim Super Hornet solution look attractive, at least in terms of explaining it to the public.

Second, the SoR needs to change so that stealth remains an important factor — perhaps the most important one — but not one that immediately excludes other platforms. Assigning stealth a value in the weighing of all factors — which much include cost, industrial benefits and other platform capabilities — at least gives the impression of a level playing field. The government also should consider seeking the view of an independent body or agency to confirm that the revised specifications aren’t wired to a particular plane, and that the industry data has not been manipulated.

Third, Ottawa needs to be seen to consult industry and obtain current data untainted by any perceived biases or interpretations left over from previous efforts. A request for information from industry was a known shortcoming of the two-year options analysis by the RCAF and the independent panel, since companies are not bound by their submissions. In a competition, on the other hand, the winning company is on the hook to do what it says it will do.

Finally, we might expect a serious effort to make public as much of that review as possible, consistent with national security and commercial confidences. That would contrast with the final report of the options analysis delivered in mid-December 2014, which was robustly redacted and deliberately timed by political staff to limit public scrutiny.

The approach suggested by some — along the lines of ‘just show some leadership and buy F-35 now’ — would see the Liberals backtrack on a major election promise, double down on a losing Conservative strategy and drain any remaining public confidence in major defence equipment purchases. Public trust in the broader acquisition process needs to be restored first. The trust politicians and the bureaucracy have in the ability of Defence brass and officials to set requirements, assess risk, estimate costs and manage programs also needs to be repaired.

Barring a surprise, massively-discounted option, the F-35 ought to win any fair competition — as it has every other time there has been one. Getting to that point requires unpacking the problem and slowly trying to turn public opinion around, starting with addressing the many issues caused by sub-optimal program decisions and communications along the way.

The government’s current approach may offer the prospect, years from now, of acquiring at least some F-35s. But that possibility will not be helped by proponents who threaten to pull industrial contracts and focus on stealth over data and sensor integration as the platform’s primary sales feature.

Image: National Post

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