OTTAWA — The federal government unveiled its interim steps Tuesday in the long-fraught effort to replace Canada's aging fleet of fighter jets, but key questions — how much it would cost taxpayers and the impact on the military — remained up in the air.
Following a closed-door cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill, three Liberal cabinet ministers held a news conference to announce plans to enter into discussions with U.S. aerospace giant Boeing to purchase 18 Super Hornet jets.
At the same time, however, the government intends to launch an open competition starting next year to replace all 77 of the air force's CF-18s — a process that's expected to last up to five years.
The ministers described buying the 18 Super Hornets as a necessary stop-gap to ensure Canada has enough planes to fill a so-called "capability gap" — enabling it to both fulfil its NATO obligations and to defend North American interests.
"We need additional planes as soon as possible for an interim period," said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, flanked by Public Procurement Minister Judy Foote and Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains.
"Having a new squadron of interim aircraft will mitigate those risks significantly as we address the capability gap."
The Hornet, the ministers said, is both compatible with the U.S. and currently operational — the unspoken implication being that the F-35 remains in development, even though the U.S. Air Force declared it operational in the summer.
And even as they repeatedly highlighted the urgent need for new planes, the ministers refused to say much the government expects the Super Hornets to cost to buy and operate.
During last year's election campaign, the Liberals pegged the cost of a single F-35 — the vaunted and controversial stealth fighter favoured by the previous Conservative government — at $175 million, compared with $65 million for one Super Hornet.
But Kuwait recently announced plans to buy 40 Super Hornets for $13 billion. Even with eight of them specially equipped for electronic warfare, that still works out to $335 million per plane.
At the same time, Denmark is moving ahead with plans to buy 27 F-35s at a cost of $4 billion, which amounts to about $148 million per plane.
Then there's the compatibility issue: a government-appointed expert panel and the military's research branch determined in separate reports that it would be extremely expensive for Canada to operate two types of fighter jets, given the different training, infrastructure and supporting equipment required.
Sajjan sidestepped questions about the supposed savings promised by the Liberals during last year's election campaign.
"We want to go through an appropriate process to determine all the costings," he said, "but at the same time, making sure that we fill the capability gap while we look to the long term of replacing our fighter fleet as well."
Foote, meanwhile, wouldn't say what would happen if Boeing tried playing hardball with the government, stating only that it was in the company's interest to come up with a good deal for Canada.
The ministers also deflected questions over whether buying Super Hornets now would give the plane a leg-up on its competitors in the upcoming competition.
"We're having an open, transparent, competitive process," Foote said. "The more we have engaging in that process, the more competitors we have, the better it will be for Canada."
Air force officials were reportedly dead-set against the plan to purchase Super Hornets, which they consider outdated technology compared with the state-of-the-art — albeit largely unproven — F-35.
The government has also been accused of manufacturing a "capability gap" to allow for the purchase of the aircraft without a competition.
But the Liberal plan was praised by defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance, who stated categorically that the military desperately needed new planes immediately.
"With this investment in the Royal Canadian Air Force over the short and long term, Canadian air space will be better defended," he said.
Opposition parties seized on the announcement as a waste of taxpayer dollars at best, and a case of political interference at worst.
"The prime minister is making a political decision about what fighter jets to buy our pilots," interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said during question period.
"Instead of telling our fighter pilots what jets they are allowed to have, why does he not let them make the decision?"
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blamed the Conservatives for "completely botching" the procurement effort.
NDP defence critic Randall Garrison openly mocked the notion of an open competition with 18 new Super Hornets stationed at Canadian bases.
"I don't think anyone can take seriously that after we replace a third of our fleet with the Super Hornets there can possibly be a level playing field for some kind of open competition after that."
Rival Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-35, said it was "disappointed" by the news, but struck a conciliatory tone by saying it was looking forward to an open competition.
The government made a point of saying it would remain a member of the program that produced the F-35, and that the aircraft would be allowed to compete.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister expressed concern about the fate of Manitoba companies that have been supplying parts for the F-35.
"I take this as a very obvious departure from the stated commitments the federal government has made in respect to our aerospace industry here in Manitoba," Pallister said.
"We are not impressed or happy with the announcement this morning," he added.
— With files from Steve Lambert in Winnipeg