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Politics Sajjan defends plan to buy interim fleet of fighter jets, citing 9/11

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says a lack of fighter jets hampers Canada’s ability to respond to military emergencies.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is invoking the 2001 terrorist attacks to justify the sole-source acquisition of 18 Super Hornet fighter jets, saying Canada cannot respond to all military emergencies with its aging CF-18s.

"If anybody thinks we are not going to have any unforeseen situations, think about 9/11, when we had to put every single fighter up in the air," Mr. Sajjan said in the face of opposition attacks in the House of Commons.

However, government and industry officials predict it will take five years for the new fleet to be fully operational, meaning the Super Hornets would only integrate with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the early 2020s.

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Ken Pennie, who was deputy commander of NORAD at the time of the 9/11 attacks, said the Liberal government's plan will exacerbate the lack of fighter jets during this period as sparse resources are use to bring the new aircraft into the RCAF.

"It takes time to train people and put everything in place," said Mr. Pennie, a retired lieutenant-general and former head of the air force. "The capability gap is going to get bigger."

Mr. Pennie added that, on the day of the 9/11 attacks, Canada's fighter jets were put on full readiness, but not all flew patrols.

The Liberals are facing criticism from the opposition and military experts for invoking a lack of jets to justify their plan to buy an "interim fleet" of Super Hornets. The stop-gap measure will allow the government to launch a five-year competition for a full fleet of fighter jets, to be fully operational in the late 2020s.

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The government's plan for the Super Hornets is to "fly them hard for 10 years" before replacing them, a government official said. The new fleet is widely expected to be made up of Boeing Super Hornets or the more modern Lockheed Martin F-35s.

In the House of Commons, the Conservative Party attacked the government for refusing to lay out the cost of its plan for a sole-source purchase of fighter jets.

"Do the Liberals even have a clue how much the Super Hornets are going to cost taxpayers?" Conservative MP James Bezan asked during Question Period, calling the aircraft "flying white elephants."

Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus added that the government should have gone straight to a competition instead of wasting time with an interim fleet.

"They are filling a gap that does not exist," he said.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote said the government will take the necessary time to choose the right aircraft, while making sure there are appropriate regional benefits across Canada.

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"An open and transparent competition will ensure that our men and women in uniform get the equipment that they need to do the jobs expected of them," she said. "We are going to make sure that we have a robust, transparent competition that will ensure that Canadians get jobs from coast to coast to coast."

Mr. Sajjan's press secretary, Jordan Owens, said the government picked the Super Hornet for the interim fleet because "Canada needs a fighter that is not in development, meets our defence needs, is interoperable with our NORAD allies, and has the right cost and economic benefits for Canada."

As they announced their plan on Tuesday, government officials said they had to ensure Canada could fulfill its commitments to international allies. However, they refused to provide firm numbers on the number of CF-18s that are unavailable on a given day, citing national security.

"Our government is not prepared to risk-manage our commitments to NORAD and NATO," Mr. Sajjan said. "Obviously, for classified reasons, I can't give you the number for those commitments and [talk] about missions. But our government's policy is that we will not risk-manage. We want to fill that gap."

General Jonathan Vance, the Chief of the Defence Staff, was also vague as he discussed Canada's inability to carry out various commitments simultaneously.

"There are a number of missions and training events that are not possible to achieve at the same time. There are days where we don't have enough aircraft to do one of the missions," he said.

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