The Liberal government is rejecting the notion that it manufactured an artificial crisis in order to buy 18 new Super Hornets, saying Canada's shortage of fighter jets goes back to 2010, when the Conservatives were in power.
The federal government will not have to go to tenders to buy the Boeing aircraft, using a clause in federal contracting rules that states that fulfilling an "interim requirement for defence supplies" does not require a solicitation of bids.
This exemption to contracting rules was used only once before, for the purchase of a new refuelling vessel by the Royal Canadian Navy last year.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan acknowledged there are significant costs associated with the plan to buy an "interim" fleet of Super Hornets and launch an open competition for a "full" fleet to replace the decades-old CF-18s down the road.
However, he said it is the only way that Canada can meet all of its commitments to NORAD and NATO at any given moment, while allowing for training missions and any unforeseen military needs.
Liberal officials said the shortfall in available CF-18s to fulfill all of those requirements simultaneously goes back to the midpoint of the last Conservative government.
"Yes, it is going to cost more to fill this gap, but it is a necessary thing that we have to do," Mr. Sajjan said. "We're dealing with the situation we've been dealt with by the previous government. I would have loved not to have to spend more money to fill a gap."
Mr. Sajjan has been defending his plan for over a week, facing criticism from opposition MPs and military experts who argue the purchase was more about politics than military needs. In the last election, the Liberals promised to break with Conservative policy and not buy new Lockheed-Martin F-35 aircraft.
Mr. Sajjan took a hit earlier this week when the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, said the Liberal government created the need for new fighter jets by calling on the military to be able to meet all international commitments simultaneously.
"Previously … we were comfortable as an armed forces in meeting those [NORAD and NATO commitments] with our extant fleet," Lt.-Gen. Hood told reporters. "That policy has changed with a requirement to be able to meet both of those concurrently, as opposed to managing them together, thus the requirement to increase the number of fighters available."
Conservative MP James Bezan said the Liberal government is misleading the public by arguing there is an urgent need for new fighter jets that can only be met through an untendered purchase.
"Lieutenant-General Hood has been very clear, there is no capability gap," Mr. Bezan said in an interview. "[The Liberals] have not been transparent. This is about them setting a narrative to sole-source the Super Hornet."
Mr. Bezan, who is a former parliamentary secretary to the minister of defence, denied that the Conservative government allowed the capability gap to go on unchecked for years.
"That is why we did the life-extension program for the CF-18s, to have enough time for the selection of a fighter jet that the air force wants," he said.
The Liberal policy on the availability of fighter jets was adopted last week by cabinet, at the same time as the procurement strategy for the interim and the full fleet was approved. Still, Mr. Sajjan insisted that it was not a new approach.
"It's sad that we even have to call it a policy change. What we're really doing here is living up to our obligations as a country that we have agreed upon when we signed up for NORAD and NATO," he said, adding that the actual numbers of required fighters are classified.
Mr. Sajjan said the previous Conservative government's plan to buy 65 F-35s to replace the CF-18s was insufficient to meet Canada's international commitments and could not have realistically been completed quickly enough to fill the capability gap.
"I wish I could have brand new airplanes right now, but a transition to a new fleet does take time," Mr. Sajjan said. "It's not like getting into a car and off you go. It's about being able to fly the missions that we, as a nation, are obligated to do."