Friday, March 16, 2012

This is an opportunity to reset the fighter jet procurement process

After several years of ignoring opposition warnings about the price, suitability and lack of competitive tender around the F-35 program, the Harper Conservatives are now finally beginning to admit what we’ve all known all along: this purchase isn’t set in stone, the F-35 program has issues, and this may not be the jet for us. (The fact they're about to get slammed by the AG may be a factor.)

After several years of belligerent “you’re with us or you hate the troops” rhetoric and Red Menace propaganda from Peter MacKay and Julian Fantino anytime someone raised very valid questions, we’ve seen a massive climb-down for the government. Of course, they’ll never admit the critics were right all along, and this whole drama points to a serious lack of judgement by the government. Which I suppose is the point the Liberals try to make with this cheeky video.

Frankly, though, I think focusing on the flip-flop aspect is wrong, particularly when they’re finally (maybe) getting it right. Yes, they should have listened to us all along but, frankly, no one cares.

Where I would instead focus is using this as an opportunity to reset the process. Well, not so much reset it since there was no actual needs analysis and procurement process around the F-35 to begin with, so instead let’s argue for an actual process this time.

We need to have a public debate here, and it needs to start with the basic question of what role do we want our military, and fighter jets in particular, to play in Canada and the world in the 21st century. 

Just saying “we want the best of everything” is simplistic and foolish. You don’t buy the most expensive car with all the optional features, you buy the best vehicle you can afford that best fits what you’ll be primarily using it for: a car with good highway mileage if you have a long commute, or an SUV with storage space if you have kids to take to soccer practice.

We need to decide what role we want our Air Force to play going forward. Do we want to be focused solely on continental air defence and sovereignty? Or do we want the capability to intervene and attack ground targets in a conflict such as Libya?These are the kind of questions we need to answer first, as our needs will dictate the choices we make. If our primary concern is air defence, an air superiority fighter like the new F-15 Silent Eagle may be a better, and more affordable, option. If we want ground attack capability, a multi-role fighter like the F-35 or other options may be a better fit.

Once we've determined what our needs are in a next-generation fighter, we need to design a request for proposals and put it top tender through a competitive bidding process. Get the manufacturers competing to offer us the best deal and best price, and we can pick which is the best deal and best suits our needs. And then insist, as every other country does with major military procurement, that a significant portion of the work and related contracts go to Canadian industry.

All three of these elements -- needs analysis, competitive tender, industrial benefits -- were missing from the initial Conservative process around the F-35. If all options are indeed “on the table” as Fantino has said, then, rather than gotcha videos, we should be demanding these elements form the basis of a re-started procurement process.

Frankly, I think our primary mission needs to be continental air defence and we should consider an air superiority option that can performance that task better than the F-35, and at a fraction of the price. But let’s have that debate and evaluate all the options, instead of simply settling on the coolest-looking toy.

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1 comment:

Vancouverois said...

I think you're right that it would be a bad decision to focus on the flip-flop per se. It looks hypocritical to lambaste the Conservatives when they were planning to buy the jets, and then turn around and lambaste them for following your advice.

However, I think it is fair to point out the strident way in which they refused to back down for so long. Congratulate them for (finally!) making the correct decision, but don't be afraid to point out that their behaviour is unacceptable.