National Defence is touting F-35 fighter jets as a key tool against overseas threats for decades to come, stating the military can’t pick an aircraft based solely on Canada’s domestic needs.
But government insiders, opposition critics and military experts are arguing that National Defence needs to reopen the debate over mandatory requirements for the new fighter jets. At this point, Canada’s defence policy calls for the purchase of stealth fighter jets, which is a characteristic that will be of use in international missions – but doesn’t necessarily serve Canada’s needs on the home front.
“For missions in Canada, it’s not the ideal aircraft,” University of Ottawa professor Philippe Lagassé said of the F-35.
He said the F-35 is relatively costly, slower that some competitors and hampered by the fact that it has a single engine, instead of being a twin-engine jet like the current fleet of CF-18s. However, based on current requirements for overseas missions, the Lockheed-Martin aircraft is Canada’s only option.
“The only stealth aircraft that Canada can buy, apart from those being developed in Russia and China, is the F-35,” Prof. Lagassé said.
The situation is opening up an interesting political debate over the Conservative government’s insistence on the need for fighter jets that can be part of allied operations in combat zones overseas.
Speaking in front of a parliamentary committee Thursday, the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force said he cannot afford both a “home fleet” and an “away fleet” of fighter jets.
“No matter what we consider as the future option, we have to look at a single-fleet, multi-role aircraft to meet all of Canada’s needs,” Lieutenant-General André Deschamps said.
However, the NDP argues that the priority missions for Canada’s next fleet of fighter jets should be the protection of Canadian territory and fulfilling Canada’s responsibilities over North American skies as part of NORAD.
“We need to fall onto a domestic understanding of our needs and go to an open tendering process that responds to those needs,” NDP MP Mathieu Ravignat said.
While the DND is staunchly standing behind its selection of the F-35 as its next fighter jet, there is growing pressure on the government to open up the process to a competition involving rival aircraft manufacturers.
Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose announced this week that the body housed in her department to buy new aircraft will no longer be known as the “F-35 secretariat,” but rather as the more generic “national fighter procurement secretariat.”
She added the government is “hitting restart” on the procurement, which has been harshly criticized by the Auditor-General as being handled out of sequence and without full financial disclosure to Canadians.
At the public accounts committee of the House, Mr. Ravignat said the Canadian Forces have failed to come up with an appropriate response to the Auditor-General’s report.
“The elephant in the room here is … that you are still working on the assumption that the F-35 was the plane that we needed,” he said.