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Members of the Canadian Forces work on a CP-140 Aurora surveillance plane at the Canadian Forces base in the Persian Gulf, in 2017.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Philippe Lagassé is an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University.

Controversy and Canadian defence procurement appear to be inseparable, if not co-dependent.

At issue this time is the Canadian Multi-Mission Aircraft (CMMA), a project to replace the air force’s fleet of CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft. Ottawa appears to have scrapped earlier plans for a competition, signalling instead that it is likely to sole-source the P-8 Poseidon, built by the U.S. company Boeing, to the tune of about $8-billion. Bombardier, headquartered in Montreal, has fiercely objected to this plan, demanding that it be allowed to bid for the CMMA contract with a modified version of its Global 6500, which is in use by various militaries around the world, though not yet for maritime patrol. Bombardier is proposing to work with General Dynamics Mission Systems Canada, the firm that recently upgraded the Auroras. Both the Ontario and Quebec governments are supporting Bombardier’s call, as has the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence.

Given these high-level demands for a competition, and with a federal election on the horizon, it seems unlikely that this latest controversy will fade away, even if Canada actually signs a contract for the P-8. To avoid a potential debacle, Ottawa needs to take a deep breath and be far more transparent about why it plans to sole-source the P-8 – especially since Ottawa should have learned this lesson from past controversies, including the decade-long effort to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft.

According to Public Services and Procurement Canada, the P-8 is “the only currently available aircraft that meets all of the CMMA operational requirements,” notably for anti-submarine warfare, an assessment that has been corroborated by an independent consulting firm. What these anti-submarine warfare requirements are, however, is unclear. As is too often the case in Canadian defence procurement, observers are left to make educated guesses about why a competition is not possible.

The government may believe that national security considerations prevent them from better explaining their decision, but this is counterproductive. It will be not enough to convince provincial and opposition politicians that a Canadian firm should be denied a chance to compete, nor will it be enough to convince Bombardier to give up on a contract worth up $8-billion or more.

The lack of clarity and transparency surrounding the CMMA project is nothing new. When Stephen Harper’s government announced in 2010 that it planned to sole-source Lockheed Martin’s F-35 to replace the CF-18s, critics were quick to question the choice and the military rationale behind it. The government was also attacked for failing to outline the full life-cycle costs of the procurement. Then, as now, the government struggled to explain itself properly, which ultimately made the sole-source decision untenable. In 2012, the Harper government reset the fighter aircraft replacement, and during the 2015 election Justin Trudeau’s Liberals pledged to hold a competition to replace the CF-18s. While the F-35 won the eventual competition last year, the aging CF-18s are now at the limits of their operational relevance.

The government’s intent to sole-source the P-8 aircraft from Boeing is understandable. Canadian military acquisitions are regularly criticized for being too slow, and the defence department has had trouble spending its procurement money; sole-sourcing the P-8 would expedite the replacement of the Auroras and allow the defence department to spend a sizeable chunk of its capital budget. Moreover, the P-8 is already in use among many other militaries, including Canada’s Five Eyes allies; the U.S. ambassador to Canada has reportedly encouraged the government to move ahead with the P-8. Boeing may also soon stop building them, which puts pressure on Canada to act quickly. Since the military is also routinely criticized when it “Canadianizes” equipment or buys developmental designs, an off-the-shelf procurement of a proven platform is doubly attractive.

For Bombardier, however, the government is making an uninformed and rushed decision. Only a competitive process would allow Ottawa to properly weigh the relative merits of the P-8 against Bombardier’s proposal. The desire to buy an existing off-the-shelf platform, for instance, should be measured against the benefit of potentially having a newer, tailored capability that can be built and sustained in Canada. Bombardier also argues that the current Auroras recently completed a life extension, which suggests that the government has time to run a competition before they must be replaced.

In short, there are arguments for both sides, but no real clarity. So unless Ottawa can make a better, more transparent case in support of sole-sourcing the P-8, procurement officials should consider whether they are merely delaying an eventual political decision to open the CMMA to competition. Past defence procurements suggest that a longer competitive process, launched sooner, may end up being faster than a controversial sole-source that eventually gets derailed.

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