A Liberal government proposal to buy Super Hornet fighter jets as a replacement for the air force’s aging CF-18s is back on the table.
But whether it will move ahead is still unclear.
|A U.S. Navy F/A 18 Super Hornet performs at the Canadian International Air Show at the CNE in Toronto, Sept. 4, 2016.|
Aerospace industry officials say they believed the Liberals were moving towards an open competition for a fighter replacement. But the option to buy the Super Hornets on a sole source basis and forgo a competition until around 2030 has again resurfaced, industry sources now say.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, with advice from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, has been pushing the option, despite opposition from some leaders in the Royal Canadian Air Force, sources add.
Jordan Owens, a spokeswoman for Sajjan, said Thursday that no decision has been taken yet on replacing the CF-18s.
Sajjan has repeatedly stated there is a need to immediately replace the CF-18s but his comments have been undercut by air force officers who point out the aircraft can keep flying until at least 2025.
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The acquisition of an interim fleet of 20 Super Hornets would push off the need to acquire a new fleet of fighter jets for more than a decade.
Such a deal, if it proceeds, would give breathing room to the Liberals. During last year’s election campaign, Trudeau promised Canada would not purchase the controversial F-35, an aircraft he said was unnecessary for the country’s needs and too expensive. Trudeau promised his government would hold a competition.
By moving ahead with a sole source purchase of Boeing Super Hornets – and promising a competition in the late 2020s — the Liberals will still be able to claim they kept their election promise, industry sources say.
In July, the government asked for initial information from fighter jet manufacturers so it could determine how to proceed with a replacement program. Five companies responded.
Boeing submitted information on its Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin provided information on the F-35A, Dassault responded with the data on the Rafale, Eurofighter with the Typhoon, and the Saab Group offered details on the Gripen aircraft.
The re-emergence of the proposal to sole source the Super Hornets appears to have caught industry off guard.
Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin’s CEO, was in Ottawa Tuesday at an aerospace conference highlighting both the F-35 and Canada’s participation in the project. She pitched the aircraft as a way to bring more jobs to Canada.
“Since the beginning of the program in 2001, more than 110 Canadian companies have contributed to the development and production of the F-35, bringing advanced technology and engineering work to Canada,” Hewson told the audience. “Today, Canadian-built components are on every F-35 produced. Canadian industry has been awarded over $1 billion in industrial work to date, and I’m confident the F-35 will bring significant economic benefits for decades to come.”
In August, two U.S. Air Force F-35s travelled to Canada to highlight the capabilities of the aircraft. At the time, Lockheed Martin officials said it looked like a competition would be held and their aircraft would be invited to take part.
But Trudeau is not a fan of the F-35.
When the National Post first reported on the Liberals’ proposal in early June to proceed with a sole source deal for the Super Hornets, Trudeau responded to criticism in the Commons by slamming the F-35. He dismissed the F-35, claiming the jet “does not work and is far from working.”
But a short time later the U.S. Air Force declared the jet as ready for combat.
Conservative defence critic James Bezan said in an email Thursday that “the Liberals have completely politicized this purchase by promising in the election they would exclude the F-35.
“Justin Trudeau and his friends are not fighter jet experts. Only an open and fair competition will clear-up the political mess they’ve created,” Bezan wrote.
Sajjan has said a decision on how the government will proceed on replacing the CF-18s will be made shortly, suggesting it could come by the end of the year.
The F-35 became a major political headache several years ago for the Conservative government. Although a Liberal government originally signed on to a research and development program for the plane, the Conservatives significantly expanded the commitment and later agreed to buy 65 of the planes.
The program was dogged by controversy and the aircraft faced numerous technical problems.
Aerospace industry officials say the declaration that the F-35A is ready for combat is good news for the aircraft program. But others point out that more development of the plane is needed.