American officials will need to certify the fighter jet Canada buys at the end of a multibillion-dollar procurement that’s started and stopped and started again for more than a decade, ensuring that it’s fit to plug into the U.S.’s highest-security intelligence systems.
But, says the Department of National Defence’s top procurement official, they will not get to decide which plane replaces Canadian military’s aging CF-18s.
“Ultimately when we select, when we are into the detailed design, at some point, yes, the U.S. will have a role to play in ultimate certification,” Patrick Finn, the Defence Department’s assistant deputy minister of materiel, told The Canadian Press.
“But the Americans won’t be sitting with us with the evaluation and doing that type of work. It will be us.”
Some industry sources are nonetheless worried the U.S. could use the certification requirement to block Canada from choosing a non-American plane, particularly given the Trump administration’s approach to trade.
The federal government this week laid out the latest iteration of its plan for the $19-billion competition to replace Canada’s CF-18s with 88 new fighters, which is expected to officially launch in July.
While much of the presentation delivered to fighter-jet makers focused on a loosening of industrial-benefit rules (that is, how much the winning bidder will be expected to spend on work and production in Canada), the government also revealed that companies will be asked to show how they plan to meet certain security requirements.
Specifically, companies will have until September to explain how they plan to ensure their aircraft can comply with the standards required for handling top-secret intelligence from two security networks in which Canada takes part, called “Five Eyes” and “Two Eyes.”
The “Five Eyes” network comprises Canada, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. “Two Eyes” is just Canada and the U.S. and is essential for co-operating in the defence of North America.
Meeting those requirements will pose different challenges for the four plane models that are expected to square off to replace the CF-18s, with the U.S.-made Lockheed Martin F-35 and Boeing Super Hornet already fully compliant.
The other two expected competitors, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen, will face a tougher time. The Typhoon, which is used by the British military, already meets Five-Eyes requirements, but neither it nor the Swedish-made Gripen meets the Two-Eyes standard.
A U.S. Embassy spokesperson in Ottawa emphasized the importance of technological connections between U.S. and Canadian forces on Friday.
“We look forward to hearing more about Canada’s plans for replacing its current CF-18 aircraft fleet with next-generation aircraft to meet Canada’s ongoing military commitments over the coming decades,” Joseph Crook said by email. “We continue to believe in the importance of NATO and NORAD interoperability as a crucial component of Canada’s acquisition of defence assets.”
Crook said the U.S. hopes its plane manufacturers will get to compete in a fair process.
Finn acknowledged in an interview Friday that both European contenders will have some work to do.
He revealed for the first time that U.S. certification will be required before new aircraft can plug into the two security networks, but he said that will be years away and have no bearing on which plane replaces the CF-18s. He said the Canadian military has in the past bought non-U.S. equipment that needed to be modified to meet American security requirements, such as radios and sensors for ships and drones.
However, industry sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because of a federal gag order on those involved in the fighter project, say there are fears the U.S. could use the security requirements to block Canada from buying a non-American plane.
Defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said those concerns are completely justified given the Trump administration’s penchant for using whatever means necessary to get foreign countries to buy U.S. products.
“Ultimately, those aircraft have to plug into American systems, so the American government is going to have play some kind of role,” he said of whatever new fighter jet Canada buys.
“And the concern the Europeans have is whether or not that effectively gives the Americans a veto over us buying their aircraft.”
While unable to rule out the risk entirely, Finn said officials in Washington have consistently said they are open to Canada buying a non-U.S. plane as long as it can meet the security requirements.
“The consistent answer we’ve gotten back is: ‘As long as you meet the criteria, over to you. And we are not going to tell you that a third-party cannot bid. We are telling you obviously it will have to meet our standards and the approach.’ ”