Canada Nears Decision on Controversial F-35 Jet Purchase

Review clears way to decision on US jet procurement

OTTAWA, Canada—Canada’s Conservative government has some much-needed cover if it decides to purchase 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from U.S. company Lockheed Martin. The procurement has been mired in controversy.

On Thursday, an independent panel endorsed the government’s effort to replace its aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets, though it did not endorse the F-35 specifically as the chosen replacement.

The current government’s decision to purchase the F-35s was put on hold in 2012 after Auditor General Michael Ferguson issued a scathing report about how the government was handling the purchase.

Ferguson said the government had mishandled the process, gave misleading information to the public, and lowballed the cost of the 65 jets by $10 billion dollars. Ferguson put the cost of the jets at $25 billion, compared to the government’s projections of $15 billion at the time.

Those numbers were based on a 20-year lifespan and included operation and maintenance costs. A KMPG audit that same year put the cost at $45.8 billion over 42 years.

It’s Canada’s largest military buy, and the fact that it was sole-sourced without a competitive bidding process has put the government in the hot seat as the cost rises and the delivery date gets further away.

The government responded to Ferguson’s report by restarting the procurement process, putting a hold on its earlier commitment to buy the F-35s. It also created a secretariat to oversee the buy and look at three other potential replacements to the CF-18: Boeing’s F-18 E/F Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and Dassault’s Rafale.

Yesterday, that panel announced the government was taking all appropriate measures to make sure Canada got the best jet.

But the panel’s report was withheld from the public and it didn’t say which jet Canada should buy. That left the Conservative government’s political opponents with questions and accusations.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) has long held that the government should hold a competitive bidding process. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is demanding the panel’s report be made public.

“The independent review panel assures Canadians that officials have given the Prime Minister an objective opinion on the choice of fighter jets, but the Prime Minister refuses to make that public. Is that because the Conservatives heard something they did not want to hear? Why are they refusing to tell taxpayers whether they are going to hold an open, competitive bidding process to get the best plane at the best price?” asked Mulcair on Thursday.

Harper deflected demands to see the report, but noted its value to the process of deciding what jet to buy.

“The government has received that report. It will review the options and make a decision that is in the best interests of the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces,” replied Harper.

The Conservatives have made rebuilding Canada’s defense capabilities one of their defining priorities.

With the current fleet of CF-18s already on borrowed time after a multi-billion dollar upgrade program, pressure is mounting.

That upgrade was supposed to extend the fleet’s life to 2017–2020. But with delays in the new jets expected, the government has invited bids on another upgrade program to extend the lives of the current fleet.