Ever since the Liberals promised, during the past election campaign, that they “would not buy the F-35” stealth fighter-bomber, at the same time pledging to hold an “open and transparent” competition to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s aging fleet of CF-18s, speculation has raged over which promise the Liberals would have to break.
It was plainly impossible to keep both. By definition, a competition cannot be open and transparent if one bidder has been excluded at the outset. But if they did hold a competition, and excluded the F-35, they faced the prospect of a multibillion-dollar lawsuit from Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s manufacturer. On the other hand, if the F-35 were allowed to compete, it might well win — which would be even more embarrassing.
So it was always a certainty they would have to break one promise. The defence minister’s pointed refusal to rule out the F-35 from consideration, notwithstanding the platform’s unequivocal language, suggested to many observers it would be the former. Others leaned to the latter possibility, on the theory the competition would be “wired” in such a way as to effectively exclude the F-35, much as the process had been rigged in its favour under the Conservatives. Little did anyone suspect that in fact they planned to dispense with the competition altogether.
Yet, that would appear to be the best explanation for the news, as reported last week, that the government intends to purchase an unknown number of Boeing Super Hornets via a sole-source contract, i.e. without competitive bids of any kind. Ostensibly this is being defended as an “interim measure,” to close a suddenly discovered “capability gap” between our promises to our NATO and NORAD allies and our actual force on hand. But this has been widely dismissed as a fig leaf — the previous government had budgeted $400 million to refurbish the CF-18s, enough to keep them in the air until 2025.
The suspicion, rather, is that the purchase has been undertaken for (are you sitting down?) political reasons. By postponing the competition, neither buying the F-35 nor explicitly refusing to do so, they escape both the threatened lawsuit and the ignominy of choosing the F-35, without formally reneging on the promise to put the bulk of the purchase out to competitive tender at some later date. At the very least, they put off any difficult choices until after the next election. And if the “interim measure” should prove indefinite? Or the first in a series? Could the air force end up with a fleet of Super Hornets, acquired a few at a time?
After all, what option would remain, the initial commitment having been made? Bad enough the air force should have to maintain two fleets, CF-18s and Super Hornets, each with different training and equipment needs. But these are at least related, both using roughly similar technology, both made by Boeing (the Super Hornet is essentially an upgrade on its older cousin, originally known as the Hornet). But to add yet a third, entirely different category of plane? Possibly the military’s statement of requirements could be rewritten to justify it. Or possibly everyone would just forget there was ever supposed to be a competition.
Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, is fighting back, warning that if Canada were to choose not to participate in the multinational F-35 project it could not possibly expect Canadian subcontractors to receive the hundreds of millions of dollars in business they had been promised. You might have thought the company would stress the technological superiority and/or cost-effectiveness of its planes, but only if you were wholly unfamiliar with how military procurement decisions are made in this country.
Which is the underlying cause of this whole mess. I’m not qualified to judge which plane — the F-35, the Super Hornet or one of their several European competitors — best meets our military needs, which are themselves open to debate. But what should be clear is that, one, any major purchase of this kind should be put out to competitive tender, and two, the competition should be judged strictly in terms of which plane offers the most military value for money. Yet neither condition seems to apply.
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Indeed, the same could be said for any number of similar procurement fiascos. Even where a competition is held, the criteria are as often political as military: that is, the “industrial and regional benefits” that are attached to every contract, in the form of local content, maintenance contracts and the like. The much-vaunted National Shipbuilding Strategy, now billions of dollars over budget and the subject of vicious inter-regional infighting, is a case in point.
Supposedly this was to be an example of a cleaned-up process, after the controversy surrounding the F-35 purchase, itself following on the EH-101 helicopter calamity, the submarine disaster and countless others. But the very decision to build the ships in Canada, at a time when there was no industry to speak of, rather than buy them off the shelf at half the cost from some other country, was a sign of what was really at work.
This remains the case, notwithstanding the government’s decision to use existing blueprints rather than build the ships from all-new designs. Defending the decision, Minister of Public Services and Procurement Judy Foote tweeted that the National Shipbuilding Strategy was about bringing “jobs and prosperity to many communities” and “leverag(ing) economic opportunities for (the) Canadian marine sector and economy.” Oh? I thought it was about getting ships for the navy.