By David Pugliese
The Canadian government is reviewing the information it received in the summer from five aerospace firms on the aircraft that could be considered as potential replacements for the Royal Canadian Air Force’s CF-18 fighter jets.
But outside of acknowledging that review, how the Liberal government will proceed with replacing the aging CF-18s is still a large unknown.
In July 2010 the Conservative government officially announced it planned to buy 65 F-35A fighters to replace the CF-18s, but they put that on hold as technical and cost issues emerged and the acquisition became a political liability.
During last year’s federal election the Liberals announced they would not purchase the F-35 if they came to power. Instead, a less expensive fighter jet would be bought through a competition, they said. The Liberals’ promise of a competition seemed to fall by the wayside in early June when it emerged the government was prepared to move forward on a proposal to sole source the purchase of Boeing Super Hornets as an “interim” fighter jet for Canada. Most reports at the time indicated a purchase of 28 or 29 aircraft, but some sources say the deal would have covered up to 48 planes.
The proposal was scuttled when the Ottawa Citizen newspaper broke the story, prompting criticism of the Liberals in the Commons by opposition MPs who accused the government of putting politics before military needs.
The Liberals then proceeded with a request to companies to fill out a detailed questionnaire outlining the capabilities of their aircraft, costs, and industrial benefits that might come to Canadian firms in the event of a purchase of jets. Some of the information requested included the cost of weapons and an outline of potential missions, including operations in the Arctic. The information required was similar to what the previous Conservative government asked for during its review of the CF-18 replacement program.
Interestingly, the Liberal government told the companies that even though information was being gathered, “all procurement options are being considered.”
The companies responded with detailed packages to government at the end of July. Boeing submitted information on its Super Hornet jet, Lockheed Martin provided information on the F-35A, Dassault responded with the data on the Rafale, Eurofighter with the Typhoon, and the Saab Group offered details on the Gripen aircraft.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said he wants to act quickly on moving forward with a CF-18 replacement, suggesting that an open competition is his preferred choice. But despite his talk about the need for urgency for a replacement program, he has been vague on what comes next in the process.
“It all depends on a lot of the information that we do collect, but it is going to be months, not years definitely because of the urgency for this,” he recently explained. “I can’t give you a precise date, but like I said it will be in the months coming.”
Defence sources say a new statement of operational requirements will have to be drawn up before any competition could be started.
Some Department of National Defence sources point to a recent report by the Commons defence committee as providing insight on some issues that will be considered in a new statement of requirements and how the procurement process might unfold.
The report from the Liberal-dominated committee, which outlined recommendations for North American air defence, called on the government to decide within the next year on a CF-18 replacement. (Whether it is even possible to run a competition and make a decision within a 12-month time period is open to question, but the recommendation gives a sense on how Liberals view the urgency of the replacement.)
The other recommendations included:
Any new fighter aircraft should be interoperable with U.S. aircraft.
A CF-18 replacement should be able to use to a high degree Canada’s existing fighter jet infrastructure.
The new jet would have “well-defined capital and sustainment costs as to not jeopardize the recapitalization of other much-needed military equipment.”
It would possess an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and beyond line of sight communication equipment. AESA radar is easier to maintain, provides increased performance through longer detection range, has improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and can be used for electronic attack.
Pilot safety should be a key consideration for operations in the far north. The recommendation, however, does not stipulate either a one- or two-engine fighter aircraft.
Aircraft must satisfy both Canada’s international and domestic needs, but also be capable of effectively exercising Canada’s sovereignty in the high Arctic.
Conservative Party defence critic James Bezan tried to determine the extent of information gathered by the Department of National Defence before the questionnaire was submitted by the companies as well as any insight on DND’s views on how the process was proceeding.
His questions, submitted to Parliament, are required to be answered, but in this case the Department of National Defence’s refusal to provide any details was telling. Bezan requested DND’s current estimated per unit cost for the Super Hornet, F-35A, Saab Gripen, Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon, as well as the rationale behind a Super Hornet interim purchase, and the cost estimates of flying a mixed fleet of CF-18s and Super Hornets.
Jack Crisler, Lockheed Martin’s vice president of F-35 business development, said firms held meetings with Canadian officials at the July 2016 Farnborough International Airshow and have been given an opportunity to ask for clarification on some of the questions the government wanted answered.
Companies have been told that the information isn’t binding, he added.
But Crisler said the good news for Lockheed Martin is that Defence Minister Sajjan is talking about a fair and open competition.
“It looks like we’re being included so we look forward to competing on that basis,” Crisler explained. “I’m certainly more optimistic than I was in December 2015.”
Crisler added: “The minister has said he wants a fair, transparent and open competition. We welcome that.”
Roberto Valla, Boeing’s vice president of global sales in Canada, said the government’s questionnaire was very detailed. Valla and other industry officials say the Liberals have been very consistent with their message that all options for the fighter replacement are still on the table.
Valla said he expects the fighter jet replacement file will move quickly forward. “There is definitely a sense of urgency,” he explained. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we will see something by the end of the year.”