Fighter program advances another step
Canada’s Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP) continues to stutter-step its way closer to completion with a federal government announcement that while it has chosen the Lockheed Martin F-35 over the Saab Gripen E, it still has to “finalize” details with the U.S. aerospace giant on a procurement estimated to cost $19 billion.
That process is expected to take at least seven months, effectively challenging the government to make good on its commitment last year to have a contract for 88 new aircraft signed sometime this year. Discussions were expected to begin “this week” on contractual fine print.
Defence Minister Anita Anand, at a joint news conference with Public Services and Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi, said, in a carefully-scripted announcement, that “a new fleet of state-of-the-art fighter jets is essential for Canada’s security, sovereignty and ability to defend itself.”
Tassi, insisting that the government had no idea until “this morning” that Lockheed Martin was the preferred choice by government planners, said delivery – presumably first deliveries to squadrons in Cold Lake, Alberta, and Bagotville, Quebec – would be expected in 2025.
She also defended the amount of time it had taken to deal with the procurement to date, stating that it was an “open, rigorous, competitive” process which could not be hurried, and that the imminent talks with Lockheed could see costs “refined.”
Her Assistant Deputy Minister for Defence Procurement, Simon Page, said “the most important procurement in more than three decades” had been thoroughly scrutinized by a “fairness monitor” and that there had been “competitive” dialogue with the two finalists. It had been “critical” for officials to take their time, and Page added that even seven months could be tight because “a huge amount of work” still remains to be done.
The need to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s fleet of Boeing CF-188 Hornets was identified nearly three decades ago, setting the stage for protracted political discord, miscommunication and indecision.
At about the same time, the U.S. Department of Defense kicked off a Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) project to develop a new multi-role fighter-bomber which it said would replace four types of aircraft flown by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
That project yielded the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) concept, but instead of one model, the DoD had to settle for three versions to meet differing USAF, USN and USMC operational requirements. in its three aviation arms. As program costs began surging toward $200 billion, the final JSF design from Lockheed Martin was chosen over a Boeing challenger in October 2001 after extensive flight testing of the two prototypes.
It would be 1997 before Canada became an “informed partner” in the JSF venture, committing an initial US$10M to join the “Concept Demonstration” phase and, more importantly, to reap the industrial and technological benefits from what had mushroomed into the most expensive combat aircraft project in history.
In December 2001, Liberal Defence Minister Art Eggleton indicated that he would recommend cabinet approval of the next phase in the expectation of generating more business for Canadian industry.
Two months later, Alan Williams, Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) at the Department of National Defence, signed a Memorandum of Understanding through which DND would contribute US$100 million and some test and evaluation infrastructure.
In 2006, despite the fact that only one JSF test model existed at the time, the RCAF had concluded that the F-35 was the most cost-effective replacement for its ageing Hornets – long before any detailed capital or operational cost had been proven. The Office of the Auditor General (OAG) observed that it indicated a “strong preference” for the F-35.
By 2010, Canada had made payments of approximately $168 million to the developing JSF program.
In early 2010, the OAG noted that the U.S. was “reassessing . . . cost projections” because of development delays, and Defence Minister Peter MacKay added to the confusion by telling Parliament a short while later that Canada would, in fact, buy the F-35. Just 90 minutes later, he said he had misspoken and that there would be an open competition for the procurement.
That lasted only six weeks when MacKay said Canada would sole-source 65 F-35s (well short of what the RCAF said it needed for operational and training squadrons and to account for inevitable fleet attrition) at an estimated cost of $9 billion). That amount was later challenged by Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page as sorely low-balled.
In September 2015, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reaffirmed the sole-source plan, only to be criticized by the OAG, which had identified a “troubling” government procurement record and said the F-35 costs could be significantly more than the budgeted amount.
The political ping-pong continued to drag on and even as the indecision continued to frustrate the process in Ottawa, the government continued to invest in the F-35 program to maintain its seat at the table. Its most recent payment of US$71.7 last July brought the total since that initial US$10 million in 1997 but the government said it had resulted in billions in contracts for Canadian companies.
In April 2011, the Liberals said in their campaign toward a general election the following month that they would immediately cancel the sole-source procurement but the Conservatives, returned to Parliament with a majority, insisted that the F-35 was a necessary investment not just for the RCAF but also for Canadian sovereignty.
However, the ink was barely dry on the May 2011 election results before a series of leaks indicated technological and delivery problems in the F-35 program as well as confusion about costs, but then Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino was adamant that Lockheed Martin still had a green light.
However, he subsequently hedged his bets by telling a parliamentary committee in March 2012 that while the government “remains involved” in the F-35, it had not discounted “backing out of any of the program.”
The following month, the OAG was heavily critical, saying that program costs had been seriously understated and that DND’s visible commitment to the F-35 had undermined the fairness of the procurement. That and other factors prompted Rona Ambrose, Minister of Public Works and Government Services, to announce that funding would be frozen pending “further due diligence, oversight and transparency.”
In May 2012, a new interdepartmental National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (NFPS) tasked with overseeing the procurement said DND should reboot with an honest assessment of alternatives. Lockheed Martin countered with a threat that Canadian companies could expect no more F-35 business if the government pulled the plug.
Even so, eight months later as the politicking continued, the NFPS drafted a 15-page questionnaire asking not only Lockheed Martin but also Boeing, Dassault, Airbus Defence and Saab for detailed information on fighters which could fill operational gaps until the F-15 was fully ready.
Boeing responded with an aggressive campaign for its F/A-18 Super Hornet, citing lower capital and much lower hourly flying costs, and Lockheed Martin kicked off an equally forceful campaign of its own. Saab opted not to offer its JAS 39 Gripen because “conditions were not ripe”, and Dassault eventually put up its Rafale, the only twin-engine contender besides the Super Hornet.
Nothing was really resolved before election time rolled around again in September 2015. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s campaign pledge to “not buy the F-35” and instead open a new competition was derided by Harper, who had quietly disbanded the NFPS. He said the Liberals were “living in a dream world if they think we can pull out . . . and not lose business.”
In the end, Trudeau was elected with a minority government and the jousting continued, and the F-35 was not excluded from a competition.
That set the stage for the Liberals to issue a Request for Proposals in July 2019 for the procurement of, again, a bare-bones procurement of 88 new fighters. Lockheed Martin was invited to resubmit the F-35, Boeing the Super Hornet, Airbus its Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab the Gripen E for a new competition. They would be assessed by assigning them 60 per cent for technical merit and 20 per cent each for cost and industrial benefits.
Dassault and Airbus opted out, citing issues with integrating their aircraft into NORAD and then Boeing, despite commitment job creation in Canada, was eventually dropped by the government, effectively leaving the Liberals in the same position as the Conservatives in 2010, albeit with 23 more aircraft, which remain well short of tactical and training needs.