Joe Varner, Fellow of the Inter University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society, makes the case for the Auditor General and the Parliamentary Budget Officer to review the Liberal government’s plan for interim Super Hornets.
By Joe Varner, Jan. 19, 2017
Early intervention by the Auditor General and/or the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) might be the only thing that saves the Liberals from themselves, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) from the Liberals, and the taxpayers of Canada from taking another financial hit on a botched military procurement.
The Trudeau government’s planned move to purchase 18 Super Hornets to cover an alleged pending North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) fighter capability gap is a move that will inevitably invite the scrutiny of the opposition, military experts, the media, and more damagingly, both the Auditor General and the Parliamentary Budget Officer.
In the last election, the Liberals made it very clear their intention to scrap the Conservatives purchase of the F-35 fifth-generation fighter aircraft to replace the CF-18 fleet. Their plan was to use the intended savings to help rebuild the Navy. However, upon coming to power, the new government committed to holding a competition but said the F-35 would be excluded. When pressed about the wisdom and legality of that position, the government then said it would hold an open competition and that the F-35 could be included.
Around Ottawa, however, the word was out from the start that the government was going for a directed buy of the Super Hornet. First, the staff at National Defence were told to minimize or water down the importance of fifth generation capabilities from the fighter replacement requirements. Then, the government made the unprecedented move to force more than 200 officials to sign lifetime gags preventing them from ever discussing this project. Lastly, knowing that a rejection of F-35 and a directed buy could set off litigation among competitors, the government charged one of its senior members – and not the Justice Minister, who is cabinet’s legal advisor – with coordinating major litigation issues.
Now, so the narrative goes, the Trudeau government is looking at an interim directed buy of Super Hornets to cover a pending capability gap to cover off our NORAD requirement. Once the camel’s nose is in the tent, however, then an expanded buy of Super Hornets looks more reasonable and more saleable to Canadians. Then it becomes a done deal.
According to critics, the problem is at worst that the Super Hornet is still a largely 1970s design, based on almost 50-year-old engineering, albeit larger than its predecessor and enjoying upgraded avionics and weaponry. At the best, they might say the Super Hornet is a twenty-two-year-old plus aircraft design with equally old engineering, first flying in 1995.
The government could make the argument that the directed buy is cheaper and faster, and can fill this so-called capability gap. However, this ignores the additional cost of operating a mixed fleet of CF-18s and Super Hornets. It is also well known that all the likely contenders for a fighter fleet replacement are very close to each other in purchase price and in-service support costs. Where they are not similar is in terms of their upgradeability over the life time of the fleet. Here, the F-35 has a clear advantage over its competitors.
With the production line getting set to end, the chance of upgrading the Super Hornet in the future after ten years looks increasingly limited and even unlikely. Buying a fighter capability for a decade is a clear waste of money. Additionally, a further problem for the Trudeau government is that there is no capability gap. The so-called gap only emerged with a recent 2016 change in government policy on Canadian commitments abroad; most troubling, this was reportedly done without the RCAF commander’s involvement or advice. The CF-18s could well fly to the late 2020s and even early to mid 2030s with no compromise in capability. There are filing cabinets and computers with file after file to prove it - open to ATIP (Access to Information) and/or leak.
Meanwhile, our allies operating in the Arctic – including the United States, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Denmark – will be flying F-35s to deter the Russian military threat, now and into the future. Lest it be forgotten, Russia is developing the PAK FA (T-50) stealth fighter and has plans for a future stealth strategic bomber force.
It is important to keep in mind that an Air Force without a modern effective fighter plane in not an Air Force. Only the F-35 with its enhanced sensors will play a significant and effective role in deterring Russian strategic aviation in the future Arctic security environment. Simply put, our allies are not going to want us there with anything but the same aircraft they have; doing otherwise will only compromise their security and safety. The rub will come with a demise of our Arctic sovereignty, when the United States is forced to take over defending our Arctic airspace.
In the end, majority governments can use their majority to push through any measure that they wish, with only the next election to hold them to account; the Liberals planned interim buy of Super Hornets may well be a case in point. There is a paper trail here that will easily expose the planned purchase of Super Hornet for what it is. The Auditor General and PBO whose investigations and judgements on political fiascos and government waste will almost certainly be there to point all of this out. Both have mandates to examine government actions and to shed light on government expenditures and a history of finding the goods.
This government would be wiser to avoid the experience of the Chrétien government which scrapped the EH-101 naval and search and rescue helicopter and then made every effort to avoid having to purchase it in the future. The 1994 cancellation cost taxpayers at a minimum of $500 million, with estimates ranging to a billion higher for no capability in return. Let’s not forget Canadian companies currently part of the F-35 supply chain with a multi-billion direct spend will find themselves and their employees out in the cold if the government goes in another direction.
Neither the Auditor General, nor the PBO have the means to affect change directly. But, in their review, they may be able to at least generate sufficient public attention to convince the government to revisit the interim Super Hornet decision, and focus on procuring the jet that will best serve Canada’s defence needs.
Canadians have an opportunity to avoid another disaster like the EH-101s – and they should call for the Auditor General and the PBO to intervene on taxpayers’ behalves before it is too late.
Joe Varner is the former Director of Policy to the Minister of National Defence and a Fellow of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society.