Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Sole-sourcing Super Hornets; Liberals now look identical to Tories on fighter file

By: John Invison, Post Media 

The idea that political power corrupts is hardly new: George Orwell chronicled its corrosive effects in penetrating fashion in Animal Farm.

The surprise is how short a time it has taken for the Liberals to become what they professed to despise.

Assuming Postmedia’s story predicting the Liberals will buy Boeing Super Hornet fighter jets to bridge a “capability gap” comes to pass — and I have every confidence it will — it signals a government that has lost its moorings.

John McKay, parliamentary secretary to the defence minister, told the House of Commons on Monday that a decision is coming “sooner, rather than later” and did not deny the government plans to sole-source the purchase of a small number of Super Hornets to supplement the aging CF-18 fighter fleet. Sources suggest a memorandum to cabinet on the subject will be presented to ministers on Tuesday.

The benefits in the short term for the Liberals are obvious — it postpones the need for a competition to replace the CF18s, a competition Lockheed Martin’s F-35 might win, unless it is specifically excluded, in which case, the company’s learned friends might take an interest in suing the government. (Lest you slept through last October, Trudeau’s Liberals promised not to buy the F-35.)

By sole-sourcing the Super Hornets, it pushes off the need for a competition into the next parliament.

Brilliant. Except it’s too clever by three-quarters.

While that plan might work for the Liberals in the short run, it will likely be an inflection point in their fortunes — the moment that many supporters became aware that they are just as contemptuous of process and the broader national interest as their predecessors.

By sole-sourcing the contract, they will be doing exactly what the Conservatives did when they chose the F-35 in the first place.

The only justification for sole-sourcing would be on national security grounds. But that is usually done when Canadian Forces are in theatre and need life-saving equipment quickly. That is not the case here.

It’s true that the CF-18s are reaching the end of their lifespan. But nobody talked about a “capability gap” until Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan did so in a speech last month.

Back in April, the commander of the Air Force, Lieut.-Gen. Michael Hood, told the House Defence committee that the end of the CF-18s’ useful life will be in 2025. “I’m confident, heading into what the government has suggested for an open and transparent competition, about the timelines associated with that project. I’m confident that if a decision were taken, certainly in the next five years, we’ll be in a comfortable position changing that aircraft.”

What is clear is that the purchase of Super Hornets will come with costs. Boeing has argued that buying from them will save the Department of National Defence half a billion dollars in infrastructure costs — the same hangars can be used to house the Super Hornet as the CF-18, and so on.

What is obvious is that this decision was not the military’s idea.

But the planes are not carbon copies and the new additions will mean the creation of a mixed fleet, something the RCAF has rejected on the grounds that it lowers capability and raises costs.

If part of the motivation is to free up money that can be diverted to the shipbuilding program, it would be interesting to first find out the full life cycle cost of operating two fleets.

What is obvious is that this decision was not the military’s idea.

Sajjan might roll out the example of the Australians as political cover. The Aussies also bought 24 Super Hornets to bridge a capability gap.

But they are absolutely committed to the F-35. In common with other countries that have a long-term vision of their defence needs, they know the Super Hornet will operate well into the 2030s but will be obsolete by the second half of the century.

Canada needs a fighter jet for the next 40 years.

The Liberal time horizon looks shorter — by, say, 37 years.

Liberals planning to buy Super Hornet fighter jets before making final decision on F-35s, sources say
Matthew Fisher: Suitability for Arctic defence, lower cost may put F-35s on Liberals’ radar
Michael Byers: The F/A-18 Super Hornet — a better fighter jet

The interim solution avoids the embarrassing prospect of the F-35 winning an open competition. But the purchase of Canada’s first line of defence should not be predicated upon the Liberal party’s electoral prospects.

“It’s an horrific start for this government — no better than the previous government,” said Alan Williams, a former head of procurement at the Department of National Defence, who helped blow the whistle on the sole-sourcing of the CF-18 fighter jet replacement program. “It’s not good for the men and women in uniform, the taxpayer or the industrial benefits that flow to this country. I don’t care which plane they pick, but they should go through the front door.”

That’s the bottom line. The Canadian people, and their Armed Forces, deserve the straight goods — an open and transparent competition that ends up choosing the plane best suited to defending this country against all threats.

But it was always going to be this way. The balder and dash about doing politics differently was destined to be undone by the realities of governing — a Sisyphean task, made harder still by the party’s 219 campaign commitments.

The Liberals and Conservatives now look indistinguishable on this file, just as the creatures of Animal Farm eventually saw the pigs and the humans as tantamount: “[They] looked from pig to man and from man to pig; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”