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Canada needs new fighter jets – and a transparent purchasing process

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OP-ED

by Elinor Sloan

The Globe and Mail
June 8, 2016

The Trudeau government’s plan to sole-source buy Super Hornet fighter jets is wrong. The Super Hornet may – or may not – be the right aircraft for Canada, but we won’t know until there is a full competition for the contract. Getting that under way should be the government’s number one defence priority.

In its party platform of last fall, the Liberals stated they would “immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the F-18 fighter aircraft.” Almost eight months after the election it is still not clear what progress has been made. But one of the Liberals’ main concerns with the Joint Strike Fighter buyer consortium that Canada is currently a member of was that the decision to purchase had not been part of an open competition. A sole-source purchase now – even billed as a “limited” one – verges on hypocrisy.

More importantly, it is wrongheaded and unnecessary. Canada’s fleet of F-18s dates to the early/mid 1980s. Originally 138 aircraft, the current fleet of 79 have been modified several times to extend the life of the airframes and the technological sophistication of communications, sensors and weaponry. The fleet’s operational life right now is around 2020 but an upgrade project launched in 2015 is designed to take the aircraft past that point. Air force leaders have consistently stated that the CF-18 can fly until at least 2023 and perhaps 2025.

The federal government is mimicking a nearly 10-year-old Australian decision, but the Canadian situation is different.

Australia has historically had two fleets of fighters. Its roughly 70 F-18s were bought around the same time as Canada’s and are to be replaced with the Joint Strike Fighter starting in 2020. But Australia also had two dozen F-111 fighter bombers that were built in the 1970s. In 2007, Australia decided to replace the F-111s with two dozen Super Hornets since the Joint Strike Fighter would not be available for a decade.

It is easy to see how Australia’s Super Hornet stopgap solution is attractive to a government that also said during the election it would not buy the Joint Strike Fighter (it has not repeated the statement since).

But what made sense for Australia in 2007 is not appropriate for Canada now. The waiting period is over. Both the Super Hornet and, as of July 2016, the air force version of the Joint Strike Fighter, are operationally available. If the government were to immediately proceed with a competition, as promised, whatever aircraft is chosen would be in place in time to phase out our CF-18s.

Canada has historically made a decision not to fly two different fleets of fighter aircraft because to do so is much more expensive . Although the Super Hornet is billed as an interim solution, it is hard to see how an aircraft designed to fly for 40 years can be an interim buy. This is okay if the long promised competition determines the Super Hornet is the right aircraft for Canada. But what if it does not? Denmark, for instance, just completed a fighter competition that overwhelmingly chose the Joint Strike Fighter, and many of our other allies have made the same decision. In this circumstance Canada would be faced with filling out our fleet with a less than ideal aircraft, or purchasing a second, costly fleet.

Canada needs a next-generation fighter to defend the country and fulfill our NORAD and NATO obligations. The answer is not an unnecessary stopgap measure but to expeditiously proceed with the open and transparent competition the government signed on to.

Elinor Sloan is professor of International Relations in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.

Image: JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

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