The neverending saga of the F-35 | news

During the 2015 election campaign, when he was only the leader of the third party in the House of Commons, Justin Trudeau promised that his government would never buy the F-35 fighter jets that Stephen Harper’s conservatives were fond of.

Now, seven years – and three elections – later, the Trudeau government has announced that it will order 88 of these planes, built by US-based Lockheed Martin, at a cost of $19 billion.

How did we get here? It all starts in 2010. Canada needs to replace its aging CF-18 aircraft, which will reach the end of their service life in ten years. Ottawa has already contributed since 1997 to an international partnership of eight countries to develop the F-35. Through significant public investment (more than US$600 million to date), Canada provides opportunities for its companies to win contracts under this initiative.

This partnership does not in any way oblige Ottawa to buy these aircraft one day, but it is a choice made by then Secretary of Defense Peter McKay without tenders. At the height of summer, the latter proudly poses in a replica F-35 that Lockheed Martin has kindly trucked to Ottawa. The production will be ridiculed profusely. At the time, Ottawa planned to purchase 65 F-35s for $9 billion.

But the program has stalled: the costs of maintaining this ultra-modern fleet are much higher than those supported by the government. At the time, the F-35 was still in development, a prototype of sorts, which created a lot of uncertainty.

The Conservatives reset the counters in 2012 and resumed the selection process for a new Canadian Army fighter. While they do not rule out the possibility of acquiring the F-35, they are no longer committed to it.

When Justin Trudeau announced in 2015 that he would not buy F-35s, he thus did not subject Canada to contract termination penalties, as Jean Chrétien did in 1993 when he terminated the Mulroney administration’s helicopter purchase deal. Justin Trudeau’s promise is basically to no longer act unilaterally and issue a real tender to replace the CF-18. What will he do in 2017?

From the start, European manufacturers complained that the process was biased against them and in favor of their American competitors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. In fact, as CF-18s get older and more unpredictable, Ottawa is considering acquiring 18 Boeing Super Hornets in the meantime. Many believe that this is how Canada plays dice, so that replenishment of the Super Hornet fleet becomes inevitable.

If that’s the plan, it gets derailed when Boeing accuses Bombardier of non-competitive business practices (that’s an entirely separate issue). Therefore, Canada abandoned the purchase of Super Hornets (instead, it bought used aircraft from Australia) and finally excluded Boeing from participation in tenders. Only the Swedish Saab and the American Lockheed Martin remain. This week, Ottawa chose the latter’s fighter.

Could things have turned out differently?

The defense community is almost unanimous in condemning Canada’s slowness in implementing its military projects. A spokesman for the parliamentary budget recalled in a recent report that the National Defense failed to spend its $164 billion allocated over 20 years on time.

That’s what’s leading some experts to say ahead of next Thursday’s budget that the Department of Defense doesn’t necessarily need more money urgently. It would already be an improvement if she spent the sums bestowed upon her over the years!

But why so long?

Former Secretary of National Defense and ex-soldier Gordon O’Connor said he didn’t understand why he had to ask suppliers to make him an individual offer every time he needed new equipment. Why, if he needed helmets, couldn’t he just put all the available helmets on the table and choose the best one?

Indeed, why?

David Perry, president of the Canadian Institute of Global Affairs, explains that a ready-made solution is rarely a solution. European equipment, he cites, has European electrical connections. And this means that adapters will be needed everywhere to connect Canadian devices! Not very practical. The weather also weighs heavily on the scale: devices designed for Europe or the US cannot withstand the Canadian polar cold. They need to be changed.

For David Perry, the problem is rather this obsession with tendering every acquisition. Of course, these competitive processes can guarantee the best prices. But they also ensure that everything takes much longer. The call for tenders, which ended this week, has been in the making for seven years, and Ottawa is giving itself another seven months to negotiate a formal contract. “We need to defer the purchase of new equipment to a later date,” says Perry. First, inflation increases the bill, as does the maintenance of old equipment that needs to be replaced. “We have to become more strategic,” he thinks.

There was also a question about economic spin-offs. In most cases, major defense contracts are subject to the Industrial and Technology Benefit Policy: a successful company receiving Canadian dollars must commit to doing business in Canada of an equivalent value for a specified period. In 2010, Ottawa’s agreement with Lockheed Martin was released from this obligation, causing controversy. This time, the defense claims it required each bidder to submit for qualification a plan of “economic benefits” (rather than “commercial activities”) equal to the value of its proposal. Details will reportedly be revealed at a later date.

Thus, Canada has committed to buy 88 F-35s at a price of $216 million per unit, far more than the $138 million of the 2010 agreement (or $175 million today).

It is Peter McKay who must take revenge on history. Ridiculed in 2010, here he is like an oracle. Last Monday he wrote to Toronto Sun that it was necessary to “forget exaggerations about expenses and scandals invented by bureaucrats, politicians and commentators” and choose the F-35. A week later, the government agreed with him.

All attention is focused on the budget for April 7th. Will Canada increase its military spending? Have. But keep in mind that this week’s announcement cannot be seen as a contribution to increased spending. Because this cost was already budgeted for a good ten years ago!

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