Friday, November 25, 2016

National Defence Officials Sign Lifetime Gag Order Over Fighter Jets

By: David Pugliese, National Post 
With Files from The Canadian Press 

The Liberal government has brought in an unprecedented gag order that prevents 235 Canadian military personnel and federal workers from ever talking about the program, now underway, to replace the country’s fighter jets.

The non-disclosure agreement for the equipment project puts the fighter jet replacement on the same level as top secret counter-terrorism missions undertaken by the Joint Task Force 2 commando unit as well as clandestine operations by the country’s spies, military sources say.

The permanent non-disclosure agreements were uncovered by Conservative defence critic James Bezan after he requested information through Commons “inquiry of ministry” process.

The information provided to Bezan noted that 121 individuals at the Department of National Defence were required to sign the non- disclosure agreement, 39 at Public Services and Procurement Canada; and 18 at Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. The rest of the 235 were employed by the Department of Finance, Treasury Board, Department of Justice and Privy Council Office.

Five other individuals working on the fighter jet replacement project who are under contract to DND were also required to sign the non-disclosure agreement or NDA.
National Defence says 235 officials were required to sign agreements as a reminder to employees of their obligations to keep secrets.

But two former military procurement chiefs, including one who oversaw the F-35 stealth fighter project for seven years, say they have never seen such a move and that existing security measures are already stringent.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan, who asked the question, alleges the Liberals want to keep officials from revealing that their plan to buy 18 Super Hornet jets is entirely politically motivated.

“The NDA is a life-time agreement,” the response to Bezan noted. Persons signing the NDA are considered “persons permanently bound to secrecy” on the future fighter jet capability project, it added.

Defence industry executives and retired public servants say they have never seen such secrecy surrounding an equipment program.

The NDAs were first implemented in January 2016, said DND spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier. As individuals became involved in the fighter jet work, the agreements were signed, he added.

“It was done to remind employees of their obligations to the Crown under the Security of Information Act,” Le Bouthillier explained. “Given the subject-matter and commercial sensitivities ‎associated with the work, it was deemed to be an appropriate and necessary procedure.”

He said that such agreements have been used with procurement staff before on occasion.

But Alan Williams, the former assistant deputy minister for materiel at the DND, said he has never heard of such agreements. Over the years Williams oversaw hundreds of equipment projects at both DND and Public Works, worth billions of dollars.

“I’ve never heard of this type of thing before,” said Williams. “I never required it of my staff. I think if I had, I would have been laughed out of the building.”

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced Tuesday the Liberal government was entering in negotiations with Boeing to buy 18 Super Hornets as stop-gap measure before embarking on a competition to replace Canada’s existing fleet of CF-18s.

That competition, yet to start, will take at least five years.

Bezan has alleged that the Liberals are pushing off a decision to replace the fighter jets until after the next election. The move heads off what could have been an embarrassing decision for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Lockheed Martin F-35 had the potential to win any competition but Trudeau has stated his government will never buy that plane.

Sajjan blamed the previous Conservative government for mismanaging the fighter jet replacement and creating what he calls a capability gap that now requires the purchase of the Super Hornets.

But a number of defence sources say there is no capability gap.

Earlier this year, Royal Canadian Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Mike Hood said the CF-18s could fly until 2025 and potentially beyond.

In his appearance before the Commons defence committee, Hood didn’t mention anything about a capability gap.

“I know that some aircraft will end their useful life before that date (2025), starting perhaps in 2023,” Hood told the committee. “Others could last longer.”

But Hood added that he was confident that an open and fair competition would provide an aircraft in time for replacing the aging CF-18s. “I’m confident that if a decision were taken, certainly in the next five years, we’ll be in a comfortable position changing that aircraft,” Hood said.
Capability gap or no?

The government says it needs the Hornets to address an urgent shortage of warplanes until a competition to replace all 77 of Canada's CF-18s can be finished — a process it says could take up to five years.

Critics say the air force has enough planes at the moment and the decision to buy Hornets now and punt a competition to later is part of a larger Liberal plan to avoid buying the controversial F-35 stealth fighter.