By: Kim Richard Nossal, The Ottawa Citizen
We shouldn’t be surprised that Canada is going to buy an interim fleet of 18 Boeing Super Hornets.
The Liberal government has been desperately looking for a way out of the mess Justin Trudeau created when he decided it would be a good idea to play politics by promising in the middle of the election campaign that a Liberal government would not purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 to replace the CF-18 Hornets that Canada has been flying since the early 1980s.
Trudeau promised that this decision would save billions of dollars that could be poured into naval procurement. This was always a rash promise, on so many levels.
If Canada doesn’t buy F-35s, then the Royal Canadian Air Force will not be as fully interoperable with the U.S. Air Force in the North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command as it would be with them.
For the U.S. will be flying only one new fighter in NORAD in the 2020s and 2030s: the F-35, the result a congressional decision in 1994. (USAF F-22 Raptors also fly NORAD patrols, but the Americans won’t let even their closest allies buy these aircraft.) The RCAF’s Super Hornets can be networked with F-35s, but they are simply not as capable, and much more vulnerable.
If Canada doesn’t buy F-35s, Canadian aerospace firms will be cut out of Lockheed Martin’s global value chains. The F-35, with its long production run that extends well into the 2030s, offers considerable benefits to those who remain as global partners. Boeing, which lost the Joint Strike Fighter competition to Lockheed Martin in the early 2000s, cannot offer the Canadian aerospace industry the kind of benefits Lockheed Martin can.
Finally, Canada is part of a nine-nation multinational consortium that is producing the Joint Strike Fighter. In all, 11 of Canada’s close allies and friends will be buying, and flying, the F-35 in the next two decades: Australia, Britain, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and the United States. If Canada does not purchase the F-35, it will be out of step with all these allies in the decades ahead.
Given the rashness of the Trudeau promise, his minister of national defence, Harjit Sajjan, has been hunting for a way out. In the summer, Sajjan took a trip to Australia, and liked the so-called “Aussie option.” Australia, unlike Canada, is firmly committed to buying the F-35, but needed an interim fleet of fighters to fill in for their old F-111s while waiting for their F-35s to be delivered. They bought a fleet of 24 Super Hornets.
Embracing the Aussie option is a perfect solution for the Liberal government: it gets to keep Trudeau’s rash promise not to buy the F-35, at least for now; it gets to remain in the nine-nation Joint Strike Fighter partnership with benefits from being in Lockheed Martin’s global value chains if a future government buys the F-35; and it gets three “six-packs” of fighters that can work with USAF F-35s in NORAD or be deployed elsewhere.
Most importantly, it gets to kick a real decision about the CF-18 replacement down the road, well beyond the next election.
Now this may be a good way out of the mess that Trudeau stumbled into in 2015 playing political games with defence procurement, but it is going to be a huge and costly decision for Canadian taxpayers. The aircraft that Canada will be flying for the next decade may both have “Hornet” in their name, but running two fleets of jet fighters is likely going to be exceedingly costly.
And buying an almost embarrassingly tiny fleet of Super Hornets now just postpones the day when a government in the future will have to pony up for a replacement for the aging CF-18s. A future government will have to buy a fleet of at least 65 fighters.
The substantial tab for Trudeau’s gamesmanship – both now and into the 2020s – will be felt not only by the taxpayers, but also by the other services of the Canadian Armed Forces, particularly the Royal Canadian Navy. So much for saving on fighters to pour more into ships for the RCN.
Unfortunately, we have been here before. The Liberal government of Jean Chrétien played exactly the same kind of political game during the 1993 election, promising to cancel a helicopter contract signed by his predecessor, Brian Mulroney. The new Liberal government did so on its very first day in office, throwing away nearly $500 million. And we will not see all the replacements for the old Sea Kings arrive until the early 2020s.
The Conservative government of Stephen Harper played politics with the CF-18 replacement and completely botched it, not only adding significant costs to the replacement but also laying the groundwork for the games that Trudeau played in 2015.
It is too bad for the long-suffering taxpayers and the equally long-suffering members of the Canadian Armed Forces that the present prime minister didn’t look back to see how his father handled replacing fighter jets.
For Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his Liberal party, and those across the aisle in the Progressive Conservative party, didn’t play politics with defence procurement in the late 1970s – unlike some of their successors.
Kim Richard Nossal is a professor with the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University. His latest book, Charlie Foxtrot: Fixing Defence Procurement in Canada, is available from Dundurn Press.