by Al Stephenson
November 25, 2016
This week’s announcement by the federal government that it intends to sole-source the purchase of F-18 E/F Super Hornets to fill a perceived “capability gap” in Canada’s military commitments is spin-doctoring at best — and at least, a questionable use of defence dollars.
To begin with, the notion of an “urgent” capability gap is a fabrication, created by the Liberals to ensure that parochial party promises are kept. There is no pressing need to rush this decision. Canadians were given assurances by professionals in the Canadian Armed Forces that the CF-18 fleet could be kept fully operational until 2025, giving them plenty time to properly procure a replacement fighter. All the necessary work has been done already to run a competitive procurement process that meets commitments and requirements. We don’t need to take five years to run a competition and make a decision.
The Defence Policy Review was supposed to be released in early 2017. Surely this week’s replacement decision could have waited until then — particularly when National Defence Minster Harjit Sajjan admits that the Super Hornets will not be fully operational until the late 2020s. Meanwhile, Australia plans to phase out their Super Hornets in favour of F-35s. The U.S. Navy plans to phase out its Super Hornets by 2040, giving Canada roughly 10 years of common use before the Super Hornet becomes prohibitively expensive to maintain — and technically redundant.
By the time the first Canadian Super Hornet is operational, the U.S. Air Force will have transitioned to the F-35 for NORAD operations, which will require upgrades to NORAD infrastructure. This sole-source purchase is not a logical solution, especially when there will only be 18 Super Hornets to fill the “capability gap” that, according to the minister, 77 CF-18 Hornets cannot meet today.
The Liberal government was elected on a platform of transparency and a promise to consult Canadians. It is evident that the Standing Committee on National Defence shaped the public discussion on fighter requirements to match the Liberal narrative — and then cherry-picked the responses to suit this replacement decision.
This puts the integrity of the current government in question on all issues of governance they put to the public. The government may appear to be consulting Canadians, but it’s becoming clear that they do not care to listen as experts from all areas clearly were of the opinion that an open competition would be the best means for selecting a replacement fighter.
Economically, the decision is also suspect. The CF-18 and the Super Hornet are two distinctly different airplanes both in size and content. The Super Hornet is physically 25 per cent larger and the two aircraft have no internal avionics systems in common. So the RCAF will need to support two platforms, two training systems, and two maintenance and logistics systems during the transition. That will be hugely expensive.
Using Australian and Kuwaiti purchases as indicators, Canadians will spend roughly US$5 billion to procure a marginal capability for the 2030s that will not meet current commitments, will be technologically inferior by then and will logistically expensive.
This simply isn’t a cost-effective path to take. The economic rationale for this decision rings hollow for a government not known to concern itself with military commitments.
Sole-sourcing of military equipment is warranted when there is full military support for the identified equipment and it provides clear value for the defence dollar. The C-17 and the C-130J purchases were good examples of this. But the Super Hornet decision meets neither of these criteria. It’s obvious that political gerrymandering in the military procurement process continues unabated.
The claim that this is an interim solution is nonsensical. The numbers of fighters involved, the full costs and the timeline do not add up. The rationale for sole-sourcing of the Super Hornet is ridiculous, wrong on so many levels — while the decision-making process itself is being driven by the same factor the Liberals criticized when the Conservatives were in power: parochial politics.
One must question whether it’s the intention of this government to emasculate the fighter force so future governments can’t simply “whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are” when we’re called upon to provide Canadian security to the international community.