The Harper government is pressing pause on a decision to buy new jet fighters, including whether to purchase Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II without holding a competition, because it feels ministers need more information on other options before selecting a course of action.
There will be no decision this month on the next step – whether to hold a competition for a new plane or purchase the F-35 outright – and it is very unlikely anything will be announced even by mid-July, The Globe and Mail has learned.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper removed the item from the agenda of a recent meeting of cabinet's priorities and planning committee to give ministers more time to deliberate and gather information, people familiar with the matter say. Priorities and planning is the main cabinet committee that provides strategic direction.
Sources say the government feels it's being rushed and pressured by the Canadian Armed Forces and parts of the civil service to purchase the F-35 without a competition. The government, which took a serious credibility hit in 2012 over its poor management of the procurement process, is now concerned only one fully fleshed-out option has been presented for review and that it resembled a decision to be ratified rather than a well-developed option.
Ottawa appeared on track to decide before the end of June after Public Works Minister Diane Finley announced in April that cabinet would take the "next several weeks" to review all reports on jet options that had been prepared as part of a "reset" of the fighter procurement process. As recently as mid-June, senior officials were talking privately about a decision in the next couple of weeks, and the government paved the way with a news conference where arm's-length experts praised fighter option deliberations on a replacement as "rigorous and impartial."
Now, however, the Conservatives are trying to take it slower, concerned that the civil service was pushing too heavily for a decision to buy the F-35 fighters without competition before Ottawa had sufficiently considered the matter. These would replace Canada's aging CF-18 jets.
"Cabinet hasn't decided when they will decide, and haven't determined what they'll decide," a senior government official said. "What has been determined is that they will take the necessary time to review the reports, and make a careful, considered decision."
The government was irritated by what it saw as a growing perception among defence lobbyists and foreign governments that it had already selected a plane even before ministers had formally gathered to deliberate. It blames the bureaucracy for communicating this impression.
"There has been an assumption that the F-35s were selected and that cabinet would just rubber-stamp the decision. That is not the case. They will review all of the options and make a decision."
The Tories initially announced in 2010 that Canada would buy 65 F-35s without entertaining rival bids, but then backed off in the face of heavy criticism that this decision was made without due diligence. They restarted the procurement process in 2012.
The Conservatives have privately debated whether to commit to a jet fighter purchase in advance of the 2015 federal election campaign. Those advocating selecting a plane feel they need to sew up a commitment in the name of doing what's right for the Canadian Armed Forces so they are ready to counter any proposals on the hustings next year from rival parties that might promise alternative uses for the same billions of dollars.
As The Globe and Mail reported in April, Ottawa is considering two main options for its plans to commit $45-billion to controversial new fighter jets – and both point back to the Lockheed Martin F-35 as the clear front-runner.
These two choices are: Continue with sole-source plans to buy a fleet of 65 F-35s, or launch a competition that, based on technical and financial data obtained by the government, would lead to the selection of the same aircraft.
A third option would entail starting over – including rewriting the government's specified requirements so that other aircraft could win – but this process would take years and the military heavily resists this route.
Canadian firms with contracts to supply the F-35 program have been lobbying Ottawa to buy the plane outright, arguing in a public letter that a competition "to simply delay making a decision is costly, unnecessary and not in the interests" of taxpayers or industry.