What rejoicing there must be in the twin towers at National Defence HQ at the news Canada’s auditor general is going to investigate the fighter jet “capability gap” claim used as justification for sole sourcing the purchase of 18 shiny, new Boeing Super Hornets.
At last, the prospect of vindication against allegations made by out of touch former air force commanders and cynical pundits that the entire “capability gap” excuse was a load of trumped up codswallop designed to push off the purchase of the next generation of fighters until after the next election, thereby living up to the campaign commitment not to buy Lockheed Martin’s F35 Lightning stealth jet.
How Harjit Sajjan, the defence minister, and Jonathan Vance, the chief of the defence staff, are going to enjoy a dish of cold revenge, a full two years after their claims that the country faced an urgent shortage of fighter jets and was unable to fulfill its commitments to both NATO and NORAD.
Unless, of course, the auditor Michael Ferguson finds that the entire tangled web was woven in the minister’s office, with the connivance of the military, in order to deceive the public and avoid political embarrassment.
To recap, in spring 2016, Postmedia reported the Liberals planned on buying Boeing Super Hornet fighters to bridge a so-called “capability gap”. The benefits to the governing party were obvious – it postponed the need for a competition to replace the aging CF-18s that risked being won by the F35. In its election platform, the Liberals had promised to hold an “open and transparent” competition to replace the CF-18s but had also pledged not to buy the F35 – commitments that would seem, to anyone whose head did not zip up at the back, incompatible.
Prior to the leak, Sajjan mentioned the capability gap at every opportunity, despite the commander of the air force, Lt.-Gen. Michael Hood, telling the House of Commons defence committee the CF-18s useful life could last until 2025 and that any decision taken before 2021 would give the air force sufficient time to adjust. Alan Williams, a former assistant deputy minister of materiel at National Defence, said a competition could produce results within a year.
Subsequently, the minister was silent on the file until November when he appeared at a press conference alongside Vance, then public works minister Judy Foote, and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains to deliver the news that the government would indeed sole-source an “interim” purchase of 18 Boeing Super Hornets – at a cost of an estimated $6.4 billion. The editorial comment in this space at the time described the event as “the uncomfortable attempting to justify the indefensible”.
Sajjan blamed the lack of a replacement for the CF-18s squarely on the Conservatives, for reining over a “highly politicized process” that left just 77 jets in the fleet and no replacements on order. He was correct up to a point, but the obvious solution was to hold an open competition pronto, not spend an extra $6.4 billion on jets that were not needed.
He presented the interim purchase as a political solution to a national security problem, when, in fact, it was a political solution to a political problem. Hood had also told the Commons committee that he needed just 65 aircraft to fulfill Canada’s commitments.
When pushed at the press conference in November 2016, Vance said the air force could not meet the missions to which it was assigned and respond to unforeseen circumstances.
But the requirement to meet NATO and North American defence commitments simultaneously was brand new – a Liberal policy introduced in September 2016 to justify the interim purchase.
As a former chief of the defence staff Paul Manson and 12 other retired senior air force commanders pointed out in a letter to the prime minister, it had been decades since Canada had enough aircraft to meet all its commitments at the same time. “Over the years, the air force, by judiciously balancing strategic risks and available resources, has managed its operational contributions reasonably well,” the letter stated.
Manson and his co-signators asked Justin Trudeau to abandon the interim purchase on the basis it was “ill-advised, costly and unnecessary”.
“I’m 82 years old and I may not see the outcome of all this but I want the facts put before the public,” he said in an interview. “The main point right now is that the government seems determined to go ahead with a plan that those of us with countless decades of experience running the air force think would take decades to correct.”
The former air force commanders recommended that, if the government was intent on an interim purchase, it should buy so-called legacy Hornets from a partner nation like Australia.
In the event, that is exactly what has happened – though not because the Trudeau Liberals were struck by a sudden anxiety about wasting billions and billions of taxpayers’ dollars.
Rather, Boeing’s complaint to the U.S. Commerce Department about Canadian subsidies for Montreal-based Bombardier Inc. that allowed it to sell its C-series civilian passenger aircraft at below cost – and the subsequent 300 per cent tariffs levelled against Bombardier by the Trump administration – persuaded Trudeau to cancel the deal to buy the new Super Hornets.
Canada is now intent on purchasing 25 used Australian jets – if it wins approval from the U.S. government. The government has set aside $500 million for the acquisition.
But the subsequent course correction does not invalidate the orgy of spin, obfuscation and outright fabrication that preceded it. The news, via The Canadian Press, that Ferguson is now scrutinizing the “capability gap”, as part of a wider fighter jet review is welcome news.
A report will be tabled this fall and it remains possible that the auditor finds the original plan to add brand new Super Hornets was a productive use of resources, and crucial to the readiness of the Canadian air force.
But, there also exists the prospect of a searing indictment of Liberal mendacity, such as the one Ferguson unleashed four years ago on the Conservatives’ handling of the F35 purchase, that derailed the acquisition and gave the Harper government an embarrassing black eye.
In his first report as auditor-general, Ferguson said the government gambled on the F35 without running a fair competition, had no cost certainty and that key data was hidden from decision-makers and parliamentarians.
Surely this could not be a case of the F35 Lightning striking twice?