By Richard Shimooka, Aug. 11, 2017
In the skies above Abbotsford, B.C. this weekend, the public will get a close-up glimpse of the growing controversy surrounding the CF-18 fighter replacement. F-35s and Super Hornets are attending the annual airshow. Their maneuvers may provide a temporary distraction from the growing absurdity of Canada’s procurement problems.
From the initial announcement of an interim Super Hornet fleet to the federal government’s recent spat with manufacturer Boeing, the government’s messages on its plans to replace Canada’s CF-18s have lurched all over the map. Now this file is on track to become a debacle far greater than the Sea King fiasco.
The current quest for a CF-18 fighter replacement can be traced back to August 2015, when then-candidate Justin Trudeau stood at the Irving Shipyard in Halifax. There, he promised that his government would cancel the previous government’s planned purchase of F-35 fighters and exclude the F-35 from a competition. Instead, they would opt for a “lower priced” option, explicitly identifying the Super Hornet.
Great politics — terrible policy. It capitalized on the Conservatives’ troubles with the F-35, making it seem both logical and legitimate. In fact, it was illegal: Governments cannot “exclude” valid competitors. Moreover, the full life-cycle costs of the F-35 were already known to be lower than the Super Hornet, while the F-35’s ability to operate seamlessly with allies is vastly superior.
The new Liberal government ignored these facts and moved to implement their policy. They took the highly controversial step of imposing a “gag order” on roughly 250 procurement staff members. Such a move would allow them to push ahead with their policy preference under the label of an “interim buy.”
The entire rationale for an interim buy revolved around highlighting an existing capability gap, one which would open up if the RCAF had to meet wartime fighter commitments to NORAD and NATO simultaneously. Earlier governments had only “risk managed” the problem, according to the Liberals.
It seemed like a prudent decision; in fact, it was simply a useful pretext to allow the Liberals to pursue their political goals. Such a ‘gap’ likely would only arise during a massive conventional conflict — a low-probability scenario that was never a driving factor in recent defence policy, including the government’s own Defence Policy Review. If ‘risk management’ was truly unacceptable, it would manifest itself in many different ways — including in a significantly larger and more capable military force.
Another rationale offered by the government is that the interim buy will reassure the U.S. and other allies about Canada’s reliability as a partner. The announced plan completely fails to achieve this end. It would instead saddle the RCAF with eighteen Super Hornet fighters — an aircraft the U.S. military acknowledges is ill-equipped to operate in high intensity conflict. At an estimated cost of $7 billion, it would not come cheap. Meanwhile, 11 allies have already selected the F-35.
The timeline for the permanent CF-18 replacement is perhaps even more worrisome. The government claims it will require up to five years to undertake a competition. That is excessive; Denmark was able to do it in only two years, selecting the F-35 in the process. The timeline is simply naked political interference.
Meanwhile, the interim buy will rob the RCAF of the ability to deploy any meaningful force. The government repeatedly claims the fighter fleet’s availability problems are related to a lack of aircraft. This is obfuscation. The real challenge is a severe shortage of pilots and maintenance staff. The current training system is highly constrained, and barely adequate for existing staffing levels.
The interim buy will force the establishment of new and separate support and training systems, immensely increasing the number of pilots and maintainers needed for both fleets. With the largely fixed training system, the Liberals’ policy will actually result in the RCAF being able to deploy fewer aircraft than before. These challenges have been highlighted by public statements from experts, including former RCAF commanders — to little apparent avail.
So what should the government do?
Simply put, it should end the interim buy — a $7 billion politically-driven boondoggle that will reduce the military’s operational capacity. The government might still maintain its pessimistic five-year procurement timeline, notwithstanding all the evidence to the contrary. So be it. But it should then extend the life of the current CF-18 fleet until that point.
Such a decision would restore the government’s credibility on defence with its allies, and better serve the country and Canadian taxpayers. That would be both good politics and good policy.