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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Den Tandt: Super Hornet purchase leaves CAF Members last on the list of priorities

By: Michael Den Tandt, National Post 

It’s truly remarkable, given how Liberal and Conservative MPs speak so often and sincerely of their sacred covenant with the “brave men and women in uniform,” that this country’s air force is obsolete and decrepit, and has been so for as long as anyone now living can remember.

You’d think, given the volume of talk in the House of Commons over the past decade on their behalf, that RCAF pilots – one of whom died Monday, tragically, in a training accident in Cold Lake, Alta. – would be flying X-wing fighters out of Star Wars by now, and not a ragtag fleet of 1980s-vintage refurbs that were new when many members of the current parliament were children.

The Liberal government, with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan leading the charge, has pledged redress with a sole-source purchases of 18 Boeing Super Hornets – the updated version of Canada’s CF-18. So grievous is the “capability gap,” of the Royal Canadian Air Force, we’re told, there’s no time for competitive bids. That’s for later, perhaps as many as five years hence when, with due deference to best practices and Treasury Board guidelines and other such guff that means a lot until cabinet decides it means nothing, the actual next RCAF fighter will be chosen.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II fighter-bomber will be among the competitors at this pageant, gainsaying the Liberals’ 2015 election pledge to nix the vaunted “fifth generation” stealth fighter entirely. But never mind: Five years from now is another term, another cabinet, possibly another government. In political terms it may as well be another universe on another planet.

Politically, it is all quite clever – which is why the howls of outrage have been muted to non-existent, unlike the state of affairs in late 2012, when the former Conservative government got mauled over its own sole-source plan to buy 65 F-35s, and later shelved it. The reason for the soft landing is twofold.

First, the RCAF really does badly need new fighters. In an increasingly uncertain geopolitical climate, the opposition Conservatives are in no position to argue forcefully against any purchase that makes the Canadian military more capable in the short-term. Second is the aerospace contracts, tied to Canada’s continuing membership in the F-35 consortium.

Those contracts, held by more than 30 Canadian companies that contribute to Lockheed-Martin’s supply chain, are worth more than $600-million. Any final decision to ditch the F-35 would put them at risk – particularly now, we have to assume, with a protectionist U.S. Congress and a protectionist U.S. president on the ascendant.

Kicking this can further down the road keeps Lockheed in the game, at least technically: Since last year, the U.S. weapons manufacturer has lobbied simply for inclusion in an eventual competition, a guarantee it now apparently has.

Political cleverness aside, this is egregiously dishonest, on several fronts.

First, the “capability gap.” It emerged this week that the cabinet, not the RCAF, had arbitrarily changed the definition of how many planes it needed in order to fulfill its basic mandate of protecting Canadian air space and meeting NATO commitments.

Political cleverness aside, this is egregiously dishonest, on several fronts

This makes sense when you consider the 77 functioning CF-18s are up for another refurb, price tag about $500-milion, that will keep them flying until 2025. There may indeed be a looming emergency that requires Canada to have 95 working fighters (77 plus 18) heading into the next decade. If so, what emergency? And at what budgetary cost?

Had the Conservatives dared to quietly grow the RCAF fighter fleet by 23 per cent, at a cost of $65-$70-milion per plane, the Liberals would have called them warmongers and spendthrifts. To be sure, the Liberals may be embarrassed by the very mention of the CF-18 – having made such a to-do about withdrawing them last spring from the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Having beaten swords into ploughshares, they’re now buying more swords. How awkward.

More disingenuous still is the claim that a proper, open fighter competition is impossible in short order. The five possible selections are the F-35, Boeing’s Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab’s Gripen, and Dassault’s Rafale. The specs, per-unit and operating costs of all these aircraft are known. Given an abridged new statement of requirements, a competition could have been run and a new fighter selected in 2017, industry sources tell me.

Follow the Liberal strategy to its conclusion and you end up with this: A mixed fleet, comprising some CF-18s, 18 newish Super Hornets, and years hence, long after the punters have forgotten Campaign 2015, the F-35 – by which time it, too, will likely be obsolete.

It boils down to this: The “brave men and women in uniform” will get the barest minimum the government can get away with providing, until another military crisis on the scale of the Afghan war forces its hand, after which it will buy whatever equipment it can find, in a panic. It’s how we roll, here in Canada.