OTTAWA — The federal government announced Tuesday it will wait five years before choosing a replacement for Canada's aging CF-18 fighter aircraft and purchase second-hand 30-year-old Australian aircraft instead in an effort to fix a capability gap that industry observers describe as "fictional."
"It is absolutely, totally, nonsensical," Alan Williams, the former assistant deputy minister (materiel) for national defence, told HuffPost Canada ahead of the announcement.
"There is no need to have interim jets. There is no need to waste billions of dollars, no need to train people on different platforms," he said. "Even if you admit there is a gap — which I don't think anyone seriously believes — the way to go about resolving it is exactly the opposite of what they are doing."
'You are not reinventing the wheel'
The fastest way to fix the problem is through a competition, he said.
"Everything is out there. You are not reinventing the wheel... There is no justifiable process reason to delay it. They can easily get it out, should they so desire."
The Liberals promised during the 2015 election campaign that they would "immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft." The Grits pledged not buy the F-35 — a plane the Tories had favoured and misled the public about its cost — and instead promised to focus on a lower-priced aircraft that would meet basic needs related to the defence of North America.
But 25 months after forming government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's team is only now launching the competition. Tuesday, the government said it expects to award a contract in 2022 with the first planes delivered as early as 2025.
"They could have announced they would run a competition two years ago," Williams said, "and be well done with it."
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Last week, Transport Minister Marc Garneau confirmed the government's decision to purchased used Australian aircraft. The 18 planes are the same age as Canada's CF-18s — jets that Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has said "should have been replaced 10 years ago."
While the Grits have promised to buy 88 fighter aircraft, Sajjan told reporters more planes are needed to address an "interim capability gap."
That gap is the number of jets required to fulfil Canada's NATO and NORAD commitments simultaneously. The National Defence Department won't say what missions might be compromised if new jets aren't purchased and for decades successive governments have managed the risk believing it was unlikely all those aircraft would be needed at the same time.
"For reasons of operational security, the RCAF cannot comment further on how it manages the employment of its CF-18 fleet," Daniel Le Bouthillier, the head of media relations at DND, told HuffPost Canada.
The high-end of Canada's NATO obligation is a promise to have six jets ready to fly in short order, said David Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. The NORAD commitment is classified. "It would be the worst case scenario — literally, the Russians are coming," Perry said.
Last year, Lt.-Gen. Michael Hood, the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, told a Senate committee that he was "at present unable" to "simultaneously meet both our NORAD and NATO commitments" with a current fleet of 77 CF-18s.
"There aren't enough aircraft to deliver those commitments simultaneously," he said.
Hood also told senators the CF-18s were going through structural upgrades to ensure they could fly until 2025, or beyond, until a final replacement was chosen.
Tuesday, Sajjan said the Liberal government would not risk manage Canada's national defence commitments. "A full fleet of fighters is an essential tool for defending Canada and to exercise Canadian sovereignty, and a vital contribution to our partnerships with our allies," he said.
While the Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, called the interim Australian jet purchase a "logical choice," Perry argued they aren't needed.
"Even if we are going to get aircraft from Australia that are pretty similar," he said, "they are still going to spend a bunch of money and devote a bunch of time... to put them through an upgrade.
"I think it would make a lot more sense just to spend all the time and all the money buying the 88 new aircraft as fast as we could, as an actual priority project for the government of Canada [rather] than spending time on an interim deal," he said.
The interim Australian jets are only expected to be ready in the "early 2020s," according to government briefing documents. They are expected to cost half a billion dollars.
There is no need to have interim jets. There is no need to waste billions of dollars, no need to train people on different platforms.Alan Williams
Kicking the open competition down the road, when it's already been delayed 10 years [because of the previous Conservative government] "is nuts," Perry added. "If there is an urgent strategic need for us to have more aircraft to do what we haven't been able to do in a decade or more of meeting our alliance commitments, then it is kind of unconscionable to have procurement stretch out this long."
Al Stephenson, a retired colonel with 35 years experience flying fighter aircraft, also believes there is no gap.
"This capability gap is a figment of their imagination," he said.
"The funny thing is they have dismissed the experts saying there is a capability gap and now they are creating one in order to delay the competition," Stephenson told HuffPost.
He is concerned that the government's timeline for an open competition will be five years, and extend past two elections — "which is nonsense."
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If the Liberals want to spend money on social programs or other items that are important to them, "they should be upfront and say that," Stephenson said. "[But] buying these F-18s just prolongs the agony. It's more costly than if you run the competition now and just transition to a new fighter."
A competition might also entice pilots to stay in the air force longer, he said. A steady number leave each year to join the airline industry or take lucrative jobs as private pilots in the Middle East, he said.
Conservative MP Tony Clement, the critic for public services and procurement, also argues that there is no capability gap. Buying a "bucket of bolts" from Australia, he said, is a bad strategy that risks turning into a fiasco on a scale similar to Canada's purchase of second-hand submarines. In 1998, the Liberal government purchased four inexpensive submarines from Britain that were plagued with problems — from leaking torpedo tubes, to faulty welds and ventilation troubles.
"The record of the Canadian government when it comes to buying used is not comforting. I don't blame the Australians for trying to unload their 30-year-old jets, but we have to avoid being the biggest suckers in the world."
Williams said he finds the government's actions "very disingenuous."
"Governments talk at length about how much they care for the military and the men and women who serve this country.... I find it very, very obnoxious and self-serving to say that on the one hand, and then wait years and years to give them what they need to do their job when there isn't a good reason to do it," he said. "[It's] the same kind of crap.... If you care about these guys, get them what they want."
With files from Zi-Ann Lum