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Friday, October 28, 2016

U.S. Again Pitches F-35 jet to Ottawa as Liberals aim to Replace CF-18

By: Daniel Leblanc, The Globe and Mail 

The U.S. Air Force made a last-minute pitch to the federal government in favour of the Lockheed-Martin F-35, hoping to reassure officials about the long-term viability of the stealth fighter jet that the Liberals promised not to buy in the past election, sources said.

A top American officer who leads the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office, based in Virginia, travelled to Ottawa on Oct. 14 to meet with Canadian officials who are working on the purchase of Canada’s next fleet of fighter jets. Lieutenant-General Christopher Bogdan discussed the ongoing development of the state-of-the-art fighter jet, which has clients around the world but is still facing a series of technological problems, officials said.

The visit from Lt.-Gen. Bogdan came at a crucial time, as a small team of Liberal ministers are set to choose one of three options to replace Canada’s fleet of CF-18s: launch a full and open competition; buy a small number of fighter jets for an interim fleet; or purchase an entire fleet of jets through a sole-sourced acquisition.

Defence-industry officials expect the cabinet committee on defence procurement to meet on this matter next week. Federal officials declined to comment on the timing of the coming meeting, but said the government does not plan to let the complex file drag on.

There are widespread concerns in the Liberal government about the short-term risks associated with the acquisition of the F-35, which is still in development.

Explainer: Breaking down the dogfight over Canada's next fighter jet

In September, 15 F-35s were grounded over the discovery of faulty insulation in avionics cooling lines in the aircraft’s wings, an issue that should be be fixed by the end of the year.

On a broader level, some Canadian officials were preoccupied by a recent report that raised a number of questions about the ability of the F-35 to achieve its promised capabilities.

Leaked to Bloomberg News over the summer, the report from the U.S. government’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation warned that the F-35 program was “not on a path toward success but instead on a path toward failing to deliver” full capabilities by the scheduled end of its development in 2018.

Lt.-Gen. Bogdan was in Ottawa earlier this month specifically to discuss the Canadian government’s plans to buy new fighter jets.

“The general provided an update on the status of the program and answered questions to help ensure officials had as complete information as possible on the F-35 program, as the Government of Canada considers all of its options to replace their legacy CF-18 fighter fleet,” said Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for Lt.-Gen. Bogdan.

Mr. DellaVedova would not give details of what was discussed at the meeting, but provided a statement by Lt.-Gen. Bogdan to dissipate concerns over the report from the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.

“All of the issues mentioned are well-known to the F-35 Joint Program Office, the U.S. services, international partners and our industry team. … While nearing completion, the F-35 is still in development and technical challenges are to be expected. The program has a proven track record of solving technical issues and we’re confident we’ll continue to do so,” Lt.-Gen. Bogdan said.

There was no similar visit to Ottawa by American officials in charge of the Boeing Super Hornet, which is seen as the main rival to the F-35 in the race to replace Canada’s CF-18s.

Defence-industry sources said the U.S. Air Force is more supportive of the F-35 than the Super Hornet, which is operated by the U.S. Navy. Still, the Super Hornet program has had the opportunity to provide detailed information on its aircraft to Canadian officials, sources said.

During the past federal election, the Liberal Party said: “We will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber.” The Liberals promised an “open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft,” leading to the “purchase [of] one of the many, lower-priced options that better match Canada’s defence needs.”