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Opinion New plan for fighter jet purchase is sensible – but risky

Elinor Sloan is professor of international relations at Carleton University and a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The latest twists in the Canadian fighter-jet-replacement saga make sense only if – a big if – they actually play out according to plan.

On Tuesday, the federal government announced Canada will buy 18 Australian F-18s of the same vintage as Canada's current fleet of 77 fighter aircraft, to be delivered starting in January, 2019. It also launched a competition to replace all the F-18s with 88 new fighter aircraft, to begin arriving in 2025.

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According to senior military officials, Canada's fighter fleet is not big enough to meet its NORAD and NATO obligations at the same time. The exact numbers required are classified but it is conceivable they have gone up in the past few years in response to Russian military activity. Buying F-18s that fit into Canada's existing fighter maintenance structure, that our pilots know how to fly, and that will not leave Canada with an essentially brand-new second fleet of fighters when the future fighter arrives, is a more reasonable and less costly interim solution than the now-shelved Super Hornet idea announced a year ago.

Meanwhile, it has been more than two years since the Prime Minster mandated the Ministers of National Defence and Public Services and Procurement to launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18s, the step they finally took on Tuesday. Much time was spent developing Strong Secure Engaged, the defence policy released in June, 2017, which determined Canada needs 88 fighters. Next steps are to talk to industry and fighter aircraft manufacturers, develop a statement of requirements, release a request for proposals in 2019, accept bids at some point and award a contract in 2022.

There is little room for manoeuvre. The "on time" delivery date of 2025 for the new fighter jets is also the latest date the F-18s, already decades old, will be able to fly – though it has been suggested they could be flown beyond this date if necessary.

This is a risky approach in a system that has a track record of significant delays in major military procurements. Witness Canada's aging supply ships that our navy had to decommission long before a replacement will be in the water. The fighter replacement project itself dates back to at least 2010, when the Conservatives promised new fighters by 2016.

Under Canada's defence procurement strategy, Public Services and Procurement Canada evaluates bids based on technical merit grounded in military requirements, price, and Industrial and Technological Benefits, where companies must prove that they can generate business in Canada that is equal to the value of the contract. The Tuesday announcement adds the new criterion that the winning bidder must pass a broader "economic harm test." What this will look like in practice is yet to be defined. It is driven by the Boeing-Bombardier dispute and a desire to ensure that a winning bid is good not just for the defence industry but for Canadian national economic interests. Adding yet another assessment point could make a lengthy procurement process still longer.

Two years ago, the Trudeau government entered office stating flat out that Canada would not buy the Lockheed Martin F-35. One year ago, it announced Canada would buy the Boeing Super Hornet as an interim fighter. Tuesday it announced Canada will buy used F-18s from Australia instead, and launched a competition that includes a provision seen as directed at Boeing. This bewildering series of developments has ended in a sensible but risky plan. Its success is entirely dependent on meeting stated timelines, something for which past experience does not bode well.

Failing this, Canada's air force could find itself in the same unprecedented situation as the navy; that is, years with a loss in capability altogether and with it the country's ability to defend itself.

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