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Canada's next-generation fighter: what are the RCAF's options?

IN EARLY JUNE, RCAF officers, Public Works representatives and members of an independent panel examining the purchase of a new jet to replace the CF-18 filed into the National Press Theatre in Ottawa to verify for journalists that the unfolding procurement process was indeed a fair and impartial one.

The examination of various fighter jets that could meet Canada's needs--the Lockheed Martin F-35, the Boeing Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault Rafale--had been completed, the officials said. (The Saab Gripen did not participate in the options analysis process due to "business reasons," according to senior Canadian government officials. However, Saab officials insist they remain "very interested" in competing should there be a competition.)

The report on the various aircraft has been delivered to the Conservative government, a move that now puts the final decision on how to proceed on the procurement firmly in the hands of the federal cabinet.

The report does not provide a recommendation on which fighter jet would best meet Canada's needs, but instead outlines the risks and costs associated with each aircraft, said Keith Coulter, a former fighter pilot who is a member of the independent panel overseeing the process.

The criteria examined included, among other factors, long-term maintenance and the need for aircraft upgrades over the years. Two periods were looked at by RCAF staff doing the evaluation: the first from 2020 to 2030, the other from 2030 and beyond.

Coulter said the examination provides enough information for ministers to make their decision on a new fighter. In addition, deputy ministers are expected to provide advice on what plane to select.

Throughout June, various news media reports speculated that a decision was imminent. But Public Works Minister Diane Finley repeatedly said the government still had to review the report and associated information. She isn't publicly committing to a timetable.

The decision will focus on whether to buy the F-35 outright or to conduct a competition involving this stealth fighter and the three other jets.

If the decision is to proceed with the F-35 purchase, then the government can expect much criticism claiming that the fix was in for that aircraft right from the beginning.

During the June news conference, the members of the independent panel declined to provide their personal views on which aircraft best suited Canada's needs. But they, the RCAF officers and Public Works bureaucrats all vigorously denied the process was rigged to favour the F-35.

"The purpose of this is not to reach conclusions or recommendations but to satisfy ministers that the necessary rigorous analytic work has been done and that it's been done fairly and objectively," explained panel member James Mitchell, a former senior government official.

Such statements were less than convincing for a number of people. Opposition MPs worry that the F-35 has the inside track and argue that an open competition is the only way to proceed.

Alan Williams, the former head of procurement at the Department of National Defence who oversaw Canada's initial involvement in the F-35 program, dismissed the current process as a government public relations ploy. He pointed out that a competition, where all candidate jets are properly evaluated, would ensure the RCAF receives the right aircraft.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper won't yet commit publicly to a course of action but said in the House of Commons on June 11 that "We will always consider what is in the best long-term interests of the men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force."

That was immediately interpreted by the Globe and Mail newspaper as a sign the Conservatives were leaning towards the F-35 because of that aircraft's planned operational life, well into 2055.

Any outright selection of the F-35 wouldn't come as a shock. Various groups within the Department of National Defence and RCAF haven't hidden their preference for the F-35.

The government itself announced in 2010 it was purchasing 65 of the aircraft, with then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay noting that it was the best plane for Canada. That was followed over the course of the next year by endorsements from Prime Minister Harper and a number of cabinet ministers.

The military's desire for the F-35 has a long history. In 2006 the Canadian Air Force completed an analysis of the market for a next-generation fighter, concluding that the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), better known as the F-35, was the plane to purchase.

"The results of this study have indicated that the JSF family of aircraft provides the best available operational capabilities to meet Canadian operational requirements, while providing the longest service life and the lowest per aircraft cost of all options considered," according to the September 2006 briefing report prepared for Dan Ross, then assistant deputy minister for materiel.

But at the time of the study, only one JSF/F-35 test model existed. Because of that, there was no way to prove the Canadian military's claims that the JSF had the lowest cost per aircraft or that it would be the cheapest to fly.

The ongoing scepticism over whether there will be a fair evaluation of various aircraft can be linked to what can only be described as major trust issues regarding the Conservative government and the Canadian military's handling of the fighter jet replacement.

From the beginning, the Department of National Defence put the price of the procurement at $14.7 billion.

But that figure slowly unraveled as Parliamentary watchdogs looked more closely into the F-35 purchase.

In 2011, Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page released a report predicting the F-35 program would cost $30 billion over 30 years. Soon after, then Associate Defence Minister Julian Fantino admitted the government actually didn't know what the F-35 would ultimately cost.

In March 2011, the majority of parliamentarians supported a motion that declared the Conservative government in contempt of Parliament over its withholding of information about the F-35, as well as other key financial documents on other political issues.

In April 2012, Auditor General Michael Ferguson found that Department of National Defence officials had withheld key information from Parliament about the F-35, under-estimated costs, and didn't follow proper procurement rules. He put the full cost at around $25 billion. Ferguson also determined that this figure had been known to the Conservative government, but it had not made it public.

The situation got even more bizarre when, in August 2012, Conservative MP Chris Alexander claimed that no decision on the F-35 had ever been made: "There was a misunderstanding, to some extent, in the Canadian public opinion, to some extent perpetrated by the opposition, who claimed that a decision had been made, contracts had been signed, obligations had been undertaken and that is not the case," Alexander said during a television interview.

He made that claim even though both Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay repeatedly told Canadians that Canada was committed to acquiring the F-35 and that a contract had been signed.

In December 2012, the Harper government received a report from an independent auditor which set the full cost of Canada's proposed F-35 purchase at $44.8 billion. Shortly after, the government decided to launch an evaluation of all four replacement aircraft, which lead to the June 2014 report.

So what will happen now? In June, numerous media outlets had been predicting the imminent announcement of a decision to buy the F-35, but this did not materialize.

Some political insiders say the safest way ahead for the Conservative government is to either allow a competition or to wait until after the 2015 federal election before selecting the F-35.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris says the F-35 acquisition has the potential to hurt the Conservative government's image with voters in the upcoming election.

"They portray themselves as strong fiscal managers, but they have bungled numerous defence procurement files, particularly the F-35," Harris said. "They don't want this mess hanging over their heads during an election campaign."

Holding off on a decision could provide the Conservatives with some relief during an election campaign; they could claim that no decision has been made, defusing any criticism from opposition parties.

But holding off on a decision until after the October 2015 election has some risks, particularly for Lockheed Martin.

If the Conservatives are defeated, it would mean further delays in the purchase of a new fighter jet. Both the NDP and Liberals say they would hold a competition for a new jet, a process that would take time for any new government to set up and run.

Caption: ABOVE RIGHT: A two-seater CF-18 flies over the Parc des Laurentides en route to the Valcartier firing range. During 2011's Operation MOBILE, Canada sent seven CF-18s to take part in Task Force Libeccio, which enforced the Libyan arms embargo and no-fly zone. The fighters also took part in 946 sorties, and dropped 696 bombs on Libya. Because the fleet underwent two modernization projects, the CF-18s are expected to "remain viable into the early part of the next decade when Canada's next generation fighter capability becomes operational," states the RCAF's website.

Caption: An RCAF CC-150 Polaris air-to-air refuelling aircraft from 8 Wing Trenton refuels CF-18 Hornets over the Pacific Ocean. The CF-18 is a multipurpose, high-performance twin-engine fighter that can handle both air-to-air (air defence, air superiority, combat air patrol) and air-to-ground (close air support, battlefield air interdiction) combat. The jet has a maximum range of 3,700 km, and is flown out of 3 Wing Bagotville and 4 Wing Cold Lake.

Caption: A CF-18 Hornet in flight during an air combat training exercise. Canada's 77 modernized fighters now possess: a new radar, jam-resistant radios, mission computers, embedded global positioning systems, tactical data link system, helmet cueing system, colour displays, upgraded countermeasures dispensers, and a triple-deck cockpit video recorder. The CF-18 are also equipped with the following types of armament: AIM 9M IR guided missile; AIM 7 and AIM 120 radar-guided missiles; 20 mm canon; Mk 82, Mk 83, Mk 84, CBU 10, 12, 16 and 24 laser-guided bombs; GBU 31 and 38 GPS guided bombs; and a 20 mm cannon


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Author:Pugliese, David
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Aug 1, 2014
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