By: Ian MacLeod, Ottawa Citizen
OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan insists government must move “quickly” selecting a new fighter jet, but acknowledged Wednesday the procurement plan remains way up in the air.
“We need to look at options that can bring us the right capability, for the right price and that can suit for Canada. It’s important that we move quickly,” Sajjan told reporters before meeting with defence and aerospace industry executives to discuss the major restructuring of Canada’s military, including replacing the fleet of CF-18 jets. The new defence policy is expected in early 2017.
But Sajjan refused to detail when and how the government will proceed. Asked what he meant by “quickly,” he replied: “I can’t give you a timeline just yet.”
He was equally ambiguous when confronted with the Liberal’s 2015 election promised to scrap the former Conservative government’s planned purchase of 65 F-35 stealth fighters and, “immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft.”
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“No decision has been made on procurement,” Sajjan said when asked if government is reneging. “I want to make sure I have all the necessary information, the right data. Once I have all the information, then we’ll go down the path of making a decision.”
The shifting Liberal narrative on a fighter jet replacement reflects an internal government struggle over how to fulfill the election promise without triggering a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit by F-35 builder Lockheed Martin, the U.S. aerospace giant, a senior Defence Department official recently told the Ottawa Citizen.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons in June the stealth fighter “does not work, and is far from working.”
Multiple sources have told the Citizen the government is intent on a sole-sourced purchase of Super Hornet fighters from Boeing as an “interim” measure. Sajjan recently visited Australia, which bought 24 of the aircraft about five years ago for $2.5 billion, to replace antiquated F-111 jets until newer F-35s were ready.
“We looked at the situation they were in, they provided us with good information, but we want to make sure we have a much wider perspective,” Sajjan said Wednesday of the trip.
A move to the Super Hornet would close what Sajjan began referring to this spring as a “capability gap” with the 77 CF-18s that are running full throttle to meet with Canada’s commitments to NATO and NORAD’s North American air defence.
We looked at the situation they were in, they provided us with good information, but we want to make sure we have a much wider perspective
“Between our NORAD and NATO commitments and how many jets are serviceable at one time, we cannot meet both those requirements simultaneously. That’s (what I mean) when I talk about capability gap,” he said.
“The Canadian Armed Forces have been risk-managing this problem for some time now and the previous government found it acceptable. I do not, and I want to make sure that we give all the tools necessary not to put the Canadian Armed Forces in a scenario to risk-manage.”
Sajjan then injected a new term into the debate: “(A) capability gap will lead to a capability loss. That’s exactly what’s happening with our navy right now. We require Spain and Chile to assist us with resupplying because we do not have ships right now to resupply us.
“I don’t want to go from a capability gap to a capability loss,” with fighter jets, too, he said.