In back-channel dealings, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has been secretly seeking early delivery of four F-35 deep-strike warplanes as part of a firm commitment to buy more while officially maintaining it is abiding by an open and transparent evaluation of Canada's combat aircraft needs.
A leaked, classified, high-level Pentagon briefing – dated Oct. 27 – by the top U.S. Air Force general heading the F-35 program to the secretary of the Air Force reveals Ottawa wants four F-35s next year and confirms the Harper government must deliver a signed "letter of intent" by "mid-November" to secure the deal.
Canadian military and ex-military sources familiar with pro-F-35 lobbying inside the Canadian military confirmed they were aware of the government's back-channel efforts to secure four of the warplanes as soon as possible and use them to anchor a commitment to purchase scores more of the controversial fighter-bomber that is massively over budget and more than seven years behind schedule.
If Canada makes good on the signed letter of intent, four F-35s, currently being produced to specifications for the U.S. Air Force, will be delivered to the Royal Canadian Air Force in 2015. Canada will then "payback with LRIP 9 aircraft" which means Low-Rate Initial Production two years later, according to the Pentagon document.
"This is going on behind the backs of Canadians after the debacle that we've had with the F-35, keeping everybody in the dark," said Jack Harris, the NDP defence critic, hours after the Pentagon documents leaked. Canadians are "being deceived by this government taking action without the kind of transparency that's required, without the proper debate, without notifying Canadians, without notifying Parliament. This is outrageous," he added.
The Pentagon confirmed the leaked briefing slides were authentic. Canada's pitch for early delivery of four F-35s was laid out in detail on slide 11 of a 14-slide high-level briefing to Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force, by Lieutenant-General Christopher Bogdan, the F-35 program executive officer.
"These slides are intended for internal governmental discussions," said Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman. "We will not address the content of these slides outside of official channels."
In Ottawa, senior officials were scrambling to explain the apparent disparity and the stark evidence in classified U.S. documents that show a signed letter of intent was expected within a week to secure early delivery of the F-35s.
"No decision has been made on the replacement of Canada's CF-18 fleet," insisted Marcel Poulin, spokesman for Diane Finley, the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, charged with the evaluation process.
In Question Period, Mr. Harris asked why the government is trying to "bring back the sole sourced F-35 purchase without Canadians or Parliament being told anything about it?"
"No decision has been made on replacing the CF-18s as of yet," replied Bernard Trottier, although he didn't dispute the validity or accuracy of the previously undisclosed deal laid out in the Pentagon classified documents. Nor did he address whether "as of yet" meant the "letter of intent" referred to by Lt.-Gen. Bogdan was in the works.
Locking in early delivery for four F-35s would allow Canada's fighter pilots – who covet the "fifth-generation" strike fighter – to gain experience with its sophisticated (and trouble-plagued) helmet-mounted sensors while awaiting delivery of dozens of the single-engined strike fighter.
Plagued by cost-overruns and delays, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, as it is officially known, suffered its most embarrassing setback last summer when one of the warplanes caught fire even before taking off. That led to the grounding of all F-35s and scrapped what was supposed to be a high-profile display of its capability at an air show in Britain.