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Liberals planning to eject from JSF buy
Posted on Oct 21, 2015

The new Liberal government-in-waiting in Ottawa evidently is about to call “eject, eject, eject” on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II for the Royal Canadian Air Force. While not a surprise, given the Liberals’ frequently-stated position while they were a rump presence in the House of Commons after the 2011 election, that they would set in motion a whole new review of potential replacements for the RCAF’s augmented fleet of Boeing CF-188 Hornet fighters.

Funding for new fighters has been frozen since April 2012, after Auditor General Michael Ferguson said officials had mismanaged the program and the Department of National Defence had “understated” lifecycle costs in the estimates the government used to justify the F-35.

Trudeau confirmed his plans for the Joint Strike Fighter program in late September when the Liberals were still trailing the New Democratic Party in various national opinion polls, and long before they surged to the secure majority in the House of Commons in the October 19 general election.

He suggested to a rally in Halifax that he’d prefer to spend any savings from acquiring a different aircraft on new naval assets. “We are going to build the ships and prevent the kind of delays on hiring and training and investment in infrastructure in order to deliver those ships in a timely way and on budget.”

Different “more affordable” fighters and a fresh focus on the Royal Canadian Navy would be central to his plans for a “leaner, more agile, and better equipped" military. Trudeau also indicated that although the Department of National Defence budget would remain intact, the Conservatives’ “failed” Canada First Defence Strategy would be replaced.

Canada has been involved in the JSF program since its inception in the 1990s, investing several hundreds of millions of dollars in a program which already has provided work for dozens of companies in the domestic aerospace industry. However, the Conservatives’ decision to sole-source the procurement with Lockheed Martin has been persistently problematic.

"The Conservative government never actually justified or explained why they felt Canada needed a ‘fifth-generation’ fighter, the Liberal leader told reporters harbourside in Halifax. “They just talked about it like it was obvious. It was obvious, as we saw through the entire process, that they were particularly, and some might say unreasonably or unhealthily, attached to the F-35."

Long a talking point in the last several Parliaments, the jets and varied cost estimates – the government’s own National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (NFPS) acknowledged nearly a year ago that expected costs were continuing to rise and would be at least $45.8 billion – re-emerged as an issue in the election campaign which began when Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to dissolve the 41st Parliament.

Harper’s immediate response to Trudeau was to reiterate what he said is the RCAF’s need for the F-35, a single-engine aircraft which has a seemingly endless series of developmental issues and which, despite its entry into production and initial deliveries, could still be considered developmental.

Trudeau now is promising a “more affordable” aircraft. Twin-engined options include the Boeing FA/18 Super Hornet, a larger and more capable evolution of the RCAF’s current fighter fleet, the multinational Eurofighter Typhoon, and the French-built Dassault Rafale (these last two are canard delta-wing configurations). The Saab JAS39 Gripen from Sweden, has also been mentioned but, like the F-35, is a single-engine platform which has raised concern about long-range Arctic patrols despite significant industry-wide improvements in engine reliability.

While many Canadian suppliers already involved in the JSF program obviously stand to lose future business opportunities if Trudeau follows through on his repeated promise, the Liberal leader said a new procurement process would ensure that any bidders guarantee spinoff work equal to the overall value of any contract with an alternate aircraft manufacturer. 

Because no contract has been signed, opting out of the F-35 would not leave Canada vulnerable to direct penalties – as was the case when Jean Chretien scrapped the former Progressive Conservative’s contract to acquire the AgustaWestland EH-101 for DND’s maritime and search-and-rescue helicopters.

(The EH-101 was eventually acquired for the SAR role as the CH-149 Coromorant while the maritime role is being shifted to the frequently-delayed Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone, which so far has accumulated minimal operational hours as a replacement for the venerable Sikorsky CH-124 Sea Kings.)

To date, the F-35 procurement process has been on a government-to-government basis rather than through a contract with Lockheed Martin, and Alan Williams, a former Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) at DND and now head of an eponymous consulting group, has dismissed the threat. “There would be no penalty,” said Williams, who signed off on the original memorandum which took Canada into the F-35 program. “We could walk away.”

That being said, Williams added that it makes no sense to abandon the JSF program at this point. “The way to proceed would be to first figure out what you as a government want a fighter aircraft to do, and then proceed to an open competition,” he said. “That way the country gets the plane it needs and you maximize industry participation.”