Monday, March 5, 2018

GoC Restricts Fighter Jet Purchase Information

By: David Pugliese, National Post

Capt. Denis Beaulieu flies the CF-18 upside down at the Wings Over Springbank air show at Springbank Airport west of Calgary, Ab., on Saturday July 18, 2015.Mike Drew/Calgary Sun/Postmedia Network
The federal government says it needs to tightly control the type of information being circulated about its $19-billion fighter jet replacement program because it knows best what the public should be told.

In early February, Postmedia revealed that companies interested in the government’s planned purchase of new fighter jets were warned not to talk to journalists. That came in advance of a Jan. 22 industry day to discuss the basic details of the jet purchase.

Public Services and Procurement Canada, which is co-ordinating the project, confirmed that the media blackout for companies was in place but defends that as necessary.

“As fighter aircraft and their component systems are sensitive, heavily controlled goods, it is also critical that (government) procurement officials remain the definitive source of publicly shared information, to ensure the integrity of the overall process,” the department noted in an email to Postmedia.

Procurement Canada also noted that the same rules will apply throughout this year and next as meetings are held with various companies on the jet deal. Such meetings “will require sharing extensive amounts of information, including sensitive technical data” that needs to be protected, the department added.

A CF18 Hornet prepares to resume its activities after being refuelled by a CC150 Polaris during Operation Impact, on February 4, 2015. Photo: Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND
But sources who leaked details of the industry day meeting and the department’s plan to limit information to the news media, scoffed at government claims about the need to protect sensitive information. Industry executives often talk to journalists about government bungling of military procurements, not about the secret details of their respective products, sources pointed out.

They predicted that the media blackout won’t stop details about problems associated with the jet program from leaking out.

Public Services and Procurement Canada noted it is “committed to provide regular updates” to the public and media as the jet project proceeds.

The Liberal government’s quest to buy new fighter jets has been controversial from the beginning, with mixed signals and bungled deals.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau originally said his government wouldn’t buy the F-35 stealth fighter, later claiming it didn’t work. The government then reversed course, pointing out that F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin was welcome to offer their plane to Canada in any competition.

In 2016, the Liberals launched a plan to buy new Super Hornet jets from Boeing as an interim measure, only to scuttle that deal a year later because of a trade war involving the U.S. firm.

Instead, the government says it will now buy used F-18 jets from Australia. But that purchase is already running into delays.

Pat Finn, the Department of National Defence’s assistant deputy minister of materiel, told the Commons defence committee in February that Canada is looking for delivery of the used aircraft in the summer of 2019. The Liberal government originally planned for the arrival of the first used aircraft in January 2019.

The purchase of new jets, which will eventually replace all of Canada’s CF-18s as well as the used aircraft acquired from Australia, will unfold over the next 14 years. Some of those who attended the industry day in January noted that the purchase, which would see a contract awarded in 2021 or 2022, seems drawn out, considering federal procurement officials have been involved in trying to buy a new jet since 2010.

The restrictions on what industry can say about the jet project is not the first attempt by the Liberals to crack down on what information might make its way to the public or news media about the multi-billion-dollar program.

As fighter aircraft and their component systems are sensitive, heavily controlled goods, it is also critical that (government) procurement officials remain the definitive source of publicly shared information

In November 2016, it was revealed the government brought in an unprecedented gag order that prevents 235 military personnel and federal workers from ever talking about the program. 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 at the time uncovered by Conservative defence critic James Bezan after he requested information through the House of Commons “inquiry of ministry” process.

The DND claimed 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, has said that he had never heard of such agreements.

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