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Politics How the Liberals are (technically) keeping Justin Trudeau’s impossible fighter jet promise

Justin Trudeau made an impossible promise about jet fighters in the last election campaign, and his government has taken the magical step that allows him to keep it – at least until after the next election.

Maybe you don’t remember? Mr. Trudeau promised that he would not buy the (then) controversial F-35, promoted as the next-generation fighter for U.S. allies. Instead, he said, he would hold a bidding competition to choose a fighter jet.

Of course, there was always an obvious flaw: If you hold an open competition, you can’t be sure the winner won’t be the F-35 that you promised not to buy.

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But in politics, timing is everything. And when the Liberals go on the hustings this fall, their old promise won’t be broken, technically – even if so much of Mr. Trudeau’s rhetoric about fighter jets has been scrapped.

On Tuesday, the government launched the official bidding process for the new fighter with the winner to be announced in 2020.

Now the Prime Minister can go into the next election campaign saying his government launched a competition (check) and he hasn’t bought the F-35 (check). Sure, if he is re-elected in 2019, a Liberal government may end up ordering the F-35 fighters they ruled out in 2015. But that comes later.

One day, the balls have to come down from the air and a fleet of fighter jets will be bought. It got to this point because successive governments, Conservative and Liberal, spent so much effort, and time, juggling the politics.

To be fair, the Liberals have now kept the most important part of the promise: launching a bidding competition for a new fighter jet. It provides a path forward, a competitive process to pick a fleet of fighters that the Royal Canadian Air Force will need so that it can continue to be an air force.

Mr. Trudeau’s promise that he wouldn’t buy the F-35s was really a piece of campaign grandstanding. The implication was that then-prime-minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was blowing a bundle on expensive planes so Canada could take part in foreign bombing campaigns.

“We will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber,” the 2015 Liberal election platform stated. “We will immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft. The primary mission of our fighter aircraft should remain the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability.”

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But it wasn’t easy to launch a competitive bidding process “immediately.” As it turns out, it’s pretty complicated. It required hammering out the requirements and trying to ensure that at least two or three of the four potential suppliers will bid, which meant a kind of prenegotiation with notoriously litigious defence aerospace companies whose lobbyists are jockeying for advantage, behind the scenes or in the press.

The broader process of purchasing a fighter has gone on even longer. Mr. Harper’s government announced the planned purchase of 65 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters back in 2010 – with delivery by 2020. But budgets were tight, and, as it was developed by allies as a common aircraft, it was a sole-sourced procurement. The Conservative government’s estimate of costs turned out to be low-balling. In 2012, the government watered down the commitment to buy the planes. The Liberals promised to scrap it.

But years on, when the F-35 controversy has declined, the Liberals are retreating from their F-35 rhetoric, even if they haven’t bought the plane (yet). There will be a competition. But the F-35 is probably the likeliest to win it. The requirements include both the domestic air-defence capabilities and others more geared to foreign bombing and attack missions.

In the end, the part of the promise that the Liberals kept has worked out okay. The government purchased 18 second-hand F-18s, which have started to arrive, to supplement the existing, depleted fleet of 1980s fighters. The Liberals conducted a review and issued a defence policy that sets some overall plans for defence spending. The new bidding process is for 88 jets, not the 65 Mr. Harper planned to buy. And competitive bidding is good.

But it is not going to be a lot cheaper, as Mr. Trudeau promised. It does not revolve around a dramatically different role for the fighter jet than that envisaged by Mr. Harper’s Conservatives. And, after the election, it may be the F-35.

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