Former Bureaucrat: Canada’s new fighter jet should be chosen by open competition
By: Bruce Champion-Smith, The Toronto Star
OTTAWA—If the federal government is serious about finding a new fighter jet for Canada’s air force, it should launch an open competition immediately rather than continue the “nonsensical” process now underway, a former senior bureaucrat says.
Ottawa had set a Friday deadline for aerospace manufacturers to respond to a questionnaire seeking details about the costs and capabilities of their fighters that might serve as a potential replacement for the aging CF-18s.
But Alan Williams, who once oversaw defence procurement, dismissed that as a waste of time that belies the Liberals’ own claim that the air force needs new fighters fast.
“If you really think that there is some kind of urgency and there is a capability gap, the fastest way to solve it is to run a competition,” said Williams, who previously served as assistant deputy minister in charge of materiel for the defence department.
“If a competition was started tomorrow, within a year you’d have a winner picked,” he said Tuesday in an interview.
One of the possible contenders — the Lockheed Martin F-35A — got a boost Tuesday when the U.S. air force declared the new jet was combat ready. Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of air combat command, said the jet had met criteria for initial operational capability. That includes the capability to conduct basic close air support, interdiction and limited suppression and destruction of enemy air defences with a squadron of between 12 and 24 aircraft, the air force said in a news release.
It’s an important milestone for an aircraft that has been dogged by technical challenges during its development.
Lockheed Martin was one of five aerospace manufacturers that responded to Ottawa’s call for more information about their fighter jets. The others were the Boeing Company, Dassault Aviation, Eurofighter and Saab Group.
The federal government says it will use the responses “to make an informed decision on the path forward to a future fighter fleet.”
But Williams is sharply critical of that exercise, saying the government is doing little more than treading water by seeking information that he said is largely already in the public domain.
“It really is totally, totally a waste of time,” he said. “Why they’re going through all this crap is really mind-boggling.”
He said the true capabilities of each aircraft would only be disclosed to government during a formal bidding process, when the manufacturers can be assured such details won’t be made public.
“All the secretive stuff on performance they will only convey in a competition where it’s all protected,” Williams said.
He said the Liberals should fulfil their election pledge for an “open and transparent” competition to replace CF-18s, especially since the government claims that the aging state of the existing fighters will leave the air force with an “unacceptable” gap in meeting operational demands.
“If we really do something, stop screwing around, go out and tell the world what you need, put out your statement of requirements in the public domain . . . and let people bid,” Williams said.
He said both Conservative and Liberals have bobbled the file. He said the Conservatives erred by committing to the F-35 at a time when the jet’s cost and capabilities were unknown. Indeed, that decision was later reversed after the federal auditor raised concerns about the swelling price tag for the sophisticated fighter.
Yet Williams said the Liberals have made missteps as well, notably when Trudeau pledged during the election that his government would never buy the F-35, a commitment that has them “all tied up in knots now,” Williams said.
“This jet may turn out to be the right jet for us. But the process is what’s critical here,” Williams said.
A defence department spokesperson said Tuesday that the responses to the questionnaire would not be released.
“Responses received through the consultation process are subject to commercial confidentiality and form advice to Ministers, and as such will not be publicly disclosed,” Daniel Le Bouthillier told the Star in an email.