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Fighter Jets for Our Future: Time to Sign on to the F-35

Esprit de Corps - July 2010

By Colin Kenny


When purchasing military equipment, an open, transparent, competitive bidding process is the best way to obtain value for money. Except when it isn’t. And when it comes to updating Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets, it surely isn’t.

The Harper government should forget about setting up a competition and get on with committing itself to the purchase of 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters from Lockheed-Martin as part of a consortium with our allies. If leaked documents obtained by Daniel Leblanc of the Globe and Mail are any indication, that is indeed the government’s intention – no matter what it says.

As a Liberal senator who has always taken pride in criticizing Liberal and Conservative governments alike for making dumb military decisions, I would be delighted to take a shot at the Conservatives for their apparent intention to go sole-source on this whopper of a contract (in the neighbourhood of $9 billion for aircraft and $7 billion for upkeep over 20 years).

But I can’t. Even Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s bumbling in the Commons last month, when he promised a competitive procurement process, can’t get my juices flowing. Mackay was either fibbing or didn’t know what he was talking about, because the documents obtained by the Globe show that the Department of National Defence has obtained a legal opinion that a competition is not necessary because only one company is offering the product that meets Canada’s operational requirements and need for interoperability with our allies. So there will be no competition.

The benefits of a competitive bidding process are obvious. It increases the likelihood that you will get the best product at the best price. In addition, the winning company is most likely to be the one that promises to tack on the most industrial benefits for your country’s aerospace and associated industries.

In this case, however, we already know that the F-35 – the only 5th generation fighter jet on the market ¬– is the best product. The Americans, who will be by far the biggest purchaser of the F-35, already held a competition in 2001 and determined that the F-35 far outstripped the Boeing Hornet, the latest version of the fighter jets that Canada is currently flying.

As for price, I can’t buy the arguments from opposition critics that Lockheed-Martin will hose Canada when it determines that we aren’t going to put the contract out to bidding. The process of developing the F-35 has been underway for many years now and has involved many countries, The United States, as the primary contractor in the consortium, will purchase more than 2,000 aircraft. Also involved are Britain, Norway, Denmark and Australia – the latter three being at Canada’s level in the consortium: Tier 3.

With all these countries involved, is one country going to get gouged on pricing when it knows what the others are paying? That doesn’t make sense.

As for industrial benefits, the rule of thumb is that each country gets to do work on the contract that is commensurate with its investmentt: in Canada’s case, $9 billion. But according to the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada,  even though Canada has not signed on the dotted line for the purchase of the aircrafts as some other countries have, it has already received $350 million in development and production contracts on an investment to date of somewhere between $150 million and $160 million.

That seems to show that our industries have got plenty of what is needed to proceed with development of the F-35. The word is that there is potential for as much as $12 billion in additional work, which would be more than the usual 100 percent offset.

Canada is in danger of falling back into its historic role of hewers of wood and drawers of water with all the technological advances in countries like India and China. We can’t afford to lose ground in the aerospace industry, and our involvement in this contract will create new jobs and opportunities in that and associated industries.

Beyond all this, purchasing the F-35 will maximize our interoperability with our allies. Critics have suggested that Canada shouldn’t allow the Americans push us around on our military purchases. That isn’t what is happening, and that isn’t the point. This is a joint venture with our allies. We will work together on this contract, like we will be working together for many years to come in defending our common interests around the world.

As for those Canadians who argue that we should be beating our swords into ploughshares and spending these billions on better things than fighter jets, I have one word for them: sovereignty. Countries like Norway and Denmark aren’t exactly bellicose, but they are smart enough to prepare for anything that threatens their borders and their basic values. Us too.

Senator Colin Kenny, former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.