OTTAWA — Buying a fighter jet that's different from the one used by Canada's closest allies risks disconnecting the country from the global alliances it needs the most, a former Conservative defence minister said Monday.
Peter MacKay told a Senate committee that in his mind, there's no question the Lockheed-Martin F-35 is the right plane for Canada — from defending the Far North to helping to confront the threat of terrorism around the world.
MacKay's government tried to purchase that very plane but questions about its costs and capabilities forced a halt to the process — something MacKay said he regrets.
"I'm very much lamenting some of the to-ing and fro-ing that's going on currently over the purchase of fighter aircraft," he said.
"Do I regret that we did not make the final purchase of that aircraft? Absolutely. We need it, it's good for industry, it's good for interoperability, we need it at Norad."
During the election campaign, the Liberals said they would not buy the F-35 and would instead open the process up to a competition. However, cabinet is now grappling with how to meet that commitment and Canada's defence needs at the same time.
"Our government is committed to making sure that we replace the fighters and we will do so and any procurement that takes place with our fighters will benefit Canada and make sure that our industry benefits as well," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Monday.
The Liberals have been arguing there's a capability gap that must be closed and soon, but MacKay disputed that, noting the money his government invested in keeping the existing planes in the air.
The current fleet of CF-18s are nearing the end of their useful life. Some of the upgrades needed to keep them in the air until 2025 have begun, but others have not. The military has said they need 65 planes to meet their current commitments to Norad, NATO, training programs and whatever else might be in store. There are currently 77 planes in the fleet.
Outside the hearing, MacKay said some of the problems that dogged the F-35 at the early stages of the process have been fixed. It is not just being flown by the Americans, but several other countries, he noted.
"The F-35 is by far the superior aircraft," he said.
"It is by far the one that brings the most industrial benefits to Canada, it's proven its value time and time again, they've got the bugs out, countries are taking delivery of it now, the cost is coming down.
"Its superiority is proven and we need it and we need it soon, so having a competition — if that's what they need to justify it, then fine, then keep your word, just do it."
The former Chretien Liberal government kick-started the process of replacing the CF-18s by agreeing to take part in a multinational development program for the F-35s. The Conservatives took up the process when they formed government in 2006.
David Pratt, who served as a Liberal minister of defence in 2003-04 under former prime minister Paul Martin, told the committee the Conservatives had 10 years but still failed to get the job done.
"We need an open competition in order to ensure that we're getting the best plane for Canada — now."