Elinor Sloan is professor of International Relations at Carleton University and a former defence analyst with the Department of National Defence.
The Liberal government's decision to sole-source buy 18 Boeing Super Hornets is a disappointing return to politics as usual. A year ago, the Trudeau government entered office offering "real change" to how the government goes about its business. In place of the "secretive," "closed-off" practices of the Conservatives, the Liberals offered fair and open government. Criticizing the Conservatives for deciding on a fighter aircraft without a competition, the Liberals promised they would immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18s.
On Tuesday, the Liberals announced that, in fact, any competition was many years off. An urgent sole-source buy is necessary, they argue, because of a growing capability gap that is leaving Canada unable to meet its NORAD and NATO commitments. Since the numbers around Canada's fighter obligations to NORAD and NATO are classified, it is impossible to determine separately if there is indeed an urgent capability gap. But just last April, the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force said in testimony before the House of Commons that the combination of a competition and an upgrade project designed to take the CF-18 fleet to about 2025 would put Canada "in a comfortable position" to meet its defence commitments. In other words, there was a clear and viable alternative to a sole-source buy.
A key concern for the Liberal government is the cost of the F-35. But an "interim buy" will increase the cost to Canada of maintaining a fighter force. Until such time, as the CF-18s are retired, Canada will incur the significant costs of maintaining two fleets of aircraft. While the Super Hornet is the newest version of the CF-18 (Hornet), its acquisition will require the training of pilots and technicians, and acquiring different ground-support equipment. Buying more Super Hornets as a result of the now-promised competition some years from now would, of course, eliminate the two-fleet problem. But what if the competition does not yield the Super Hornet? The 18 aircraft will continue to fly; they are, after all, a 40-year aircraft, and in that sense are inaccurately described as "interim."
The government did not say how long it would take to acquire the Super Hornets. But it is entirely conceivable a fair and open competition could produce aircraft in a comparable time frame. Over the past decade, Canada has studied the various fighter options on numerous occasions. Just last July, aerospace firms were given a month to complete a lengthy questionnaire on their aircraft, so the government would have the most up-to-date information.
Military procurements take a notoriously long time, but this is not a competition that would have started from scratch – far from it. And today, all of Canada's fighter options (Super Hornet, Joint Strike Fighter, French Rafale, Eurofighter and Swedish Gripen) are operational and available for purchase.
The Trudeau government entered office promising "real change" for Canada in how the government goes about its business. The decision to sole-source buy fighter aircraft at this time, rather than holding a fair and open competition, is an unnecessary and disappointing return to politics as usual.