October 15, 2014
Canadian CF-18 upgrades could delay JSF
The Harper Government hopes to keep procurement bungling from turning into an election issue
Recent trial balloons are shedding light on Canada’s plans to acquire next-generation fighter jets. A Department of National Defence official told reporters late last month that funds will be made available to extend use of the country’s existing 77 CF-18s by five years to 2025. Canada will also contribute an additional $25 million to $30 million to maintain its participation in the Joint Strike Fighter program.
The moves gained added significance a few days later when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada would be sending six CF-18s to support American attacks on Islamic State targets in Iraq, and possibly Syria. The dual strategy should enable Harper to postpone any firm decision regarding its plan to acquire 65 F-35 Lightning IIs until after the next federal election, scheduled for 2015.
Next generation fighter acquisition has been technically on hold in Canada since late 2012, when the government agreed to “reset” the process to look at possible JSF alternatives. The move came in the wake of repeated delays, costs overruns and uncertainties regarding the Lockheed Martin fighter’s capabilities, similar to those troubling governments in the other eight countries (including the UK, Australia and Italy) that initially signed on as co-developers.
In Canada, the Harper Government has been further bludgeoned by an auditor general’s report which highlighted considerable sloppiness, in its bid to award Lockheed Martin a sole source contract, and for publicizing grossly misleading figures as to the program’s total cost. A report by KPMG has estimated that it would cost $46 billion to purchase and operate the F-35s over their useful lives. The figure originally tabled by the Harper Government was $9 billion.
Questions about JSF suitability
Canadian Armed Forces personnel, such as Yvan Blondin, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force remain firmly behind the Joint Strike Fighter. Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, who led the NATO air attack on Libya three years ago, was so convinced of the F-35 Lightning II’s future that he signed on to lead the Lockheed Martin’s marketing efforts in Canada.
Although 20 or so local sub-contractors have banded together to form the Canadian JSF Industry Group, others question the value that these will add to the country’s defence sector. For example the offsets and industrial benefits that will accrue to Canada in any JSF acquisition remain unclear. Others claim that the F-35 Lightning II itself, which has just one engine and limited range, is a less than ideal alternative to patrol the vast expanses of Canada’s north.
However JSF does have significant advantages as a first strike weapon. This capability fits in well with the Harper Government’s “me too” strategy of piggy-backing on US operations against countries such as Libya, Syria and Iraq. For example in late September Canadian aircraft policing the Baltics as part of a NATO mission identified and shadowed a Russian military aircraft.
As with almost all international defence contracting, any assessment of Canada’s future moves needs to take the political context into consideration. That’s particularly true in the case of the Harper Government, which although notionally conservative, has not hesitated to throw Canada’s defence industry under the bus, when its electoral prospects are in jeopardy.
Although the Conservatives’ Canada First Defence Strategy identified a crucial need to reequip its defence forces, spending has remained flat in real terms. Further adding opacity is a new procurement strategy, which commits the government to assess the value that any major defence acquisition would provide local industry. The current strategy of the Harper Government, which is trailing badly in the polls, appears to be to continue to play for time until after the next election, maintaining Canada’s partial involvement in JSF until the country is in so deep, that it is impossible to back out.
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