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The Liberal government will buy 18 Super Hornets without a competition, followed by a competition for a full fleet of fighters that will take six years.Mark Wilson/The Associated Press

What does a government do when it promised to buy a new fighter jet for less than the expensive Cadillac chosen by its predecessor, and yet still hold a completely open competition for a fleet of planes?


So the Liberal government will buy fighters twice, starting with a mini-fleet of 18 Super Hornets bought without a competition, followed by a competition for a full fleet of fighters that will take six years, meaning the planes will not be delivered (and paid for) for a decade or more.

The cost to you, the taxpayer, remains unknown. But take note: The Liberals no longer promise their replacement for the Royal Canadian Air Force's aging fleet of CF-18s will be cheaper than the F-35s the Conservatives pledged years ago to buy.

Related: Liberals delay fighter-jet decision with 'interim fleet'

That cheaper fleet of fighters was a key Liberal promise for the military. The Liberals blasted the Conservatives for not holding an open competition, and promised to fix that and save money. The party's election platform promised a "more affordable" alternative, and that the savings would be reinvested in the navy. "We will reduce the financial procurement envelope for replacing the CF-18s," stated the position paper the Liberals unveiled for a campaign announcement.

That is not the line any more. It will cost billions to buy an interim mini-fleet of 18 Super Hornets, plus many more billions for a full fleet later. Will it be cheaper than the F-35s? Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, when asked, talked about how this plan would be the best for the military's needs. But will it be cheaper? Mr. Sajjan was at a loss. Let's hope the navy is not holding its breath waiting for the promised windfall.

It is quite possible the Liberal plan will work out well for the Air Force's needs, in the end. But the Liberals big promise was to do it for less money, with a competitive process. Now there is obfuscation.

Mr. Sajjan insisted the military needs the interim order of 18 aircraft because its CF-18 fleet has dwindled to 77 aging planes, and the air force can no longer meet its commitments to both NORAD and NATO. Because of the rush – an urgency the Liberals apparently did not anticipate when campaigning for office – there will be no competition.

But another reason for the interim order, according to Mr. Sajjan and Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote, is that it will take five years to run a bidding competition for a full fleet, and it will not start until a defence policy review is completed next year. That is just the time it takes, the ministers said. The planes would not be delivered till the late 2020s.

Five years for a bidding process. Boggles the mind, doesn't it? One has to accept that buying a fighter fleet is complicated, and that even after stacks of government studies, it will take time. But some former senior procurement officials say it can be done in two years. Mr. Sajjan rightly complained that the Conservatives should have replaced the planes sooner – then unveiled his own languid, protracted process. It sure looks like the government is dragging out the competition to bolster the justification for buying an interim fleet now.

By doing so, the Liberals can claim they are fulfilling the promise to hold an open competition, but they do not have to worry they will end up embarrassing themselves by picking the F-35 – at least, not for six years.

Perhaps the process will be okay for the Air Force. It will get some newer planes soon. In six years, when the competition for the full fleet is completed, it might be clear whether the F-35s, still in development, are the right plane.

But there is little doubt that it will be more expensive. Running mixed fleets of two fighters costs substantially more. But those details will be dribbled out over time. The ministers said they do not know what will happen to the interim fleet of Super Hornets when the new fleet arrives in a decade – or even what the Super Hornets will cost in the first place.

The punt helps the Liberals gloss over a failure to live up to election promises. They will not buy the F-35, at least not now. They will have a competition, at least, eventually. And they do not have to show the price tag, and admit it is not cheaper – at least, not for a long time.