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opinion

An F-35A Lightning II fighter jet practises for an air show appearance in Ottawa, on Sept. 6, 2019.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Philippe Lagassé is an associate professor and Barton Chair at Carleton University. He served on the independent panel reviewing the evaluation of options to replace the CF-18s from 2012-2014, and on the Independent Review Panel for Defence Acquisition from 2015-2022.

On Monday, Canada’s Defence Minister Anita Anand announced the $19-billion purchase of 88 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s aging fleet of CF-18s. The decision was made more than a decade after the initial choice by Stephen Harper’s government to sole-source this aircraft was reversed.

We’ve heard a lot about the F-35 jet since then, but its critics and advocates have largely agreed about one thing: It was inevitable that Canada would eventually buy the plane. The aircraft’s critics argued that military bias would inherently skew any competition; its advocates said that a competition was a waste of time, since the F-35 was the most advanced fighter on the market. In some ways, both sides can now say, “I told you so.”

Having served on two independent panels that reviewed the requirements for the new fighters, I’m confident that the competition was fair. Moreover, the time it took to get the process right was well-spent if this military capability can now be acquired without any more consternation. Indeed, if there’s one big lesson here for future procurements, it’s that taking shortcuts can backfire and only end up prolonging things further.

In 1997, Canada joined the Joint Strike Fighter program, a multilateral initiative that allows partner countries to bid for work related to Lockheed Martin’s F-35, which had beat out Boeing to develop the United States’ next-generation multipurpose fighter. It also gives partners a chance to shape certain future capability and design aspects around the F-35. Being part of the program, however, didn’t necessarily mean that Ottawa could simply sole-source the jet, because certain criteria had to be met under Canadian procurement rules.

But when the Harper government first refined the requirements for a new jet, they included capabilities that only the F-35 could fulfill. This would provide the justification for the 2010 decision to sole-source the purchase.

Over the next two years, however, that decision came under increasing scrutiny. The Harper government was accused of hiding the actual cost of the procurement, because it only presented the estimated price of buying just the planes, rather than the full life-cycle costs – what it will cost to operate the fleet for its entire time in service, including maintenance, parts, pilot and technician salaries, fuel and so forth. Critics also lambasted the decision because a number of other fighter aircraft were on the market, and the government struggled to explain why only the F-35 could meet the military’s requirements.

Faced with this criticism, Mr. Harper decided to reconsider the F-35 decision in 2012. By 2014, several studies were completed, including an in-depth evaluation of four aircraft that could replace the CF-18s. Still, Mr. Harper chose not to move forward, likely because of the election that would be held the next year.

During the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals pledged not to buy the F-35 – but when they formed government, they learned that this wasn’t viable under Canada’s procurement rules. So the Trudeau Liberals insisted that there be competition in the CF-18 replacement process. Accordingly, the requirements for the new jets were revised and potential bidders were invited to give their input into the evaluation process. This approach balanced holding an open competition without sacrificing Canada’s defence needs. Whichever bidder won the contract would do so on the merits of their proposal alone.

Two European manufacturers opted not take part, and Boeing failed to make the final cut, leaving only the Saab Gripen and Lockheed Martin’s F-35. Lockheed Martin was selected as the preferred bidder last March, which was the penultimate step leading up to this week’s announcement. The F-35s will now be gradually introduced into the Royal Canadian Air Force while the CF-18 fleet is drawn down over the next decade and infrastructure is built to accommodate the new planes.

Ideally, the procurement of the new fighters would have been competitive from the beginning. The F-35 would always have had an edge, given that it sports the latest technology and, with an expected global fleet into the thousands, enjoys significant economies of scale that drive its per-unit costs down. But holding an open competition builds trust and ensures that decisions are made with the best possible information. Canadian defence procurement certainly needs to speed up, yet it’s important to remember that going too fast can lead to more crashes down the road.