I should start off by noting that I was an Air Force brat, growing up on Canadian Forces bases in Summerside, Trenton, Baden and Comox. I was also an Air Cadet. I think fighter jets are cool, and the F-35 is a particularly kick-ass jet. The Conservatives, however, are making a boondoggle of replacing the CF-18.
We do definitely need to replace the CF-18, that’s not in doubt for me. I have little time for the argument that we somehow don’t need fighters anymore. If we’re a sovereign country, we do need the tools to protect ourselves, it’s that simple. The question we need to ask ourselves though is, what are the missions we want our air force equipped to handle, and what are the tools they need to fulfill those missions? As I see it, the primary mission is domestic: to patrol and protect our borders, such as intercepting and identifying unknown aircraft approaching our borders, escorting passenger aircraft under suspected terrorist threat, and so on. Secondary would be potential overseas combat missions which, I would agree, are becoming less likely of a threat. With the CF-18 we flew combat missions in the first gulf war and in the former Yugoslavia but, tellingly, not Afghanistan. This raises the question, do we need a ground-attack capability or is air superiority our primary mission?
The key question is to identify the mission, and then determine the best jet to fulfill it. There is some question if the F-35 is a too pricy and over-equipped choice to meet the primary mission I identified above. One oft-heard objection is if we really do need stealth technology for sovereignty patrols. The two most-mentioned alternatives are the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon. I’d reject the Superhornet out of hand. It’s essentially a souped-up version of the F-18 that we already fly. It is a double-engine jet however, a key advantage over the single-engine F-35. Also double-engine is the Typhoon. I don’t really know much about it though. My concern with buying a European aircraft would be what industrial benefits would be available to Canadian industry.
What I’d like to see first is for the government to let us know what the mission is. What is the role that they see Canada’s Air Force playing in the 21st century? If you really want to build support with the public for the largest procurement project in Canadian history, your argument needs to be more than “it’s the best because we say so, and if you disagree with us you don’t support the troops and are a commie.” Treat us like adults and make an actual argument for why we need these jets. Because I think we do, and the ham-fisted way you’re doing this isn’t helping.
The even larger mistake they’re making here though is to not have a competitive tendering process for this purchase. I mean, to not put a potential $16 billion contract to competitive tender is the height of stupidity. Hell, even when you buy a used car you negotiate a little with the dealer. You say you saw this great car at another dealer for a lower price. You pretend to walk away. You get them to come down off sticker, maybe throw in new seat cushions or something. You don’t just walk into the dealer, say I'm not looking at any other cars, this is the only car and I want, and offer to pay full sticker. It’s madness.
A competitive tender lets you identify and clarify your needs and evaluate the options. It forces the competing companies to actually compete and put together the best bid they can. Sole source it and there’s no competition at all.
And this is more than just buying X fighter jets. With a military procurement of this level, what will set one bid apart from another, and where the competition between bids really comes, is around the industrial benefits. Where biders usually compete the most is around what portion of the contract work will be done in the purchasing country, creating jobs and giving business to local businesses. These contracts can mean a lot of work for Canadian companies. Don’t put it to tender and we’ll see less spinoffs in Canada, less jobs for Canadians.
And then there’s the maintenance contract, which will be worth as much as $7 billion (that’s how we get from $9B for the jets to $16B overall). The government hasn’t even bothered to negotiate that yet. That’s right, they’re buying the jets from Lockheed but they’ll negotiate the contract with Lockheed later. And just what leverage will they have, given that they’re already agreed to buy the jets? Little to none. It will be uphill battle to maximize the Canadian content of that contract. And for those that don’t think fighter maintenance is important, go take a look at the role CF-18 maintenance contracts played in the creation of the Reform Party.
Now, the Conservatives say there has already been a competitive process with the F-35, and the Liberals initiated that process. They’re being deliberately obtuse. The F-35 is the result of the Joint Strike Fighter Program, which saw Boeing and Lockheed-Martin develop prototype aircraft for the next-generation of fighter aircraft, primarily for the U.S. and the British. Canada was one of a number of investing partners, a decision that was made under the Liberals, and the process saw the Lockheed-Martin aircraft selected.
That, however, did not commit industrial investors such as Canada to purchase any aircraft. Canada’s investment in the program secured access to contracts for Canadian aerospace companies, and the industry has reaped many contracts from the investment. But there was no commitment to purchase, no evaluation of this aircraft versus other options as to which will best meet Canada’s defence needs, no comparison for value for dollar, and no competition to provide industrial benefits to Canadian companies in exchange for purchase. To say otherwise is to deliberately mislead, or worse.
I’ve listed a myriad of reasons why it makes good sense to put this contract to competitive tender. I have yet to hear a compelling argument for why it needs to be sole-sourced. We have time left in the operational life of the CF-18 to do this thing right, so there seems little need to rush through a $16-billion process. Particularly with the economy and the budget in the state it’s in, if we’re going to do a deal of this magnitude (and I think we do need to) we should be ensuring we’re getting the right aircraft and that we’re delivering maximum benefit to the Canadian economy in terms of jobs and contracts.
Instead, the Conservatives seem determined to rush head-first with their eyes closed into a potential $16 billion boondoggle, at a time when the rest of the country is about to asked to tighten their belts as we enter a time of austerity. Doesn’t seem like a recipe for success.Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers