Opinion

Defence procurement continues to be more about political strategy than military need

The plan was to go to Boeing to purchase new Super Hornets — the latest and vastly improved variant of the F-18s. But Boeing has become a bit of a problem for Trudeau, so we're getting some hand-me-downs from our Aussie cousins.

Instead of buying new, Canada will go to Happy Harry's Used Fighter Jets Lot in Australia to buy aging F-18s

A Canadian F-18 Hornet fighter jet flies near Italy’s Trapani Birgi air base on March 19. (Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty)

The Trudeau government has finally and officially announced its "interim" solution to replace the air force's CF-18 fighter jets. It will go to Happy Harry's Used Fighter Jets Lot in Australia to buy some more aging F-18s. Liberal penury — as far as defence is concerned — strikes again.

As with much of this Liberal government, the decision is so anticlimactic, so pathetically inadequate that it has produced not a military bang but a bureaucratic whimper.

A stop-gap measure

Initially, you may recall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada was looking for some kind of stop-gap measure to shore up the aging Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 fighter jets — those that Trudeau had unceremoniously removed from their mission to fight ISIS.

Ever since he announced that he could not support the acquisition of the Lockheed F-35 stealth fighter (which was the former government's plan), Trudeau has veered from loudly calling for an "open competition" to replace the CF-18s to quietly backing down from that promise. Now, his government has again issued the usual distant promise of an open competition that might result in deliverables sometime in the next decade.

In the interim, the plan was to go to Boeing to purchase new Super Hornets — the latest and vastly improved variant of the F-18s that Trudeau's father actually procured for the Air Force for flight in 1982. But Boeing has become a bit of a problem for Trudeau; it is locked in an increasingly acrimonious battle with Bombardier over unfair trade practices and so he has nixed the contract.

That means we're getting some hand-me-downs from our Aussie cousins.

This is just another example of how the defence capital acquisition process is consistently used for political means, instead of in consideration of the operational requirements of Canada's military. In the end, it's the reason why the Canadian Armed Forces continues to use equipment that is bandaged-up way beyond its lifespan — like the Sea King helicopters that are as old as the generals who are now retiring from the military.

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan discusses the government's plan to replace Canada's aging fighter jets by the mid-2020s 8:39

It shouldn't have turned out this way with the CF-18 replacement program. National defence policy and equipment acquisition should be a non-partisan issue, as it largely is in the U.K. and Australia. Instead, it has become the reverse, with successive governments playing the DND shell game with the military: shifting the existing money around to appear as new funding or moving the needed expenditures into the distant future.

In 1997, the Chretien government signed-on to purchase the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

It did so partly because it recognized the inevitable need to replace the CF-18s, partly because it meant no money up front and partly because acquisition of the F-35 would enable Canada to be interoperable with its primary defence allies: the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. The F-35 was a single-source contract specifically because it was designed to satisfy the operational needs of everyone participating in the project.

In 2002, the Liberals agreed to continue the F-35 program. In 2006, the incoming Harper Conservative government reiterated that support.

Tory dithering

But while Stephen Harper initially did an admirable job re-equipping the military, his government dithered on the F-35, despite some heated debates in cabinet, where successive Tory defence ministers did their best to defend the project against pusillanimous naysayers who feared voter reprisals over military spending. Harper worried that the expenditure would hurt his re-election chances in 2015; little did he know that his own campaign staffers would do that for him.

If Harper, despite all his exuberance and passion for Canada's military, can sit on a military procurement file for nine years, then you can bet Trudeau can too. And that's precisely what the announcement Tuesday ultimately indicates.

And why are the Australians selling us their used F-18s?

They've just taken delivery of their first F-35s.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

David Krayden

David Krayden has worked in print, radio and television journalism. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces as a public affairs officer and was employed for almost a decade as a communications specialist on Parliament Hill. He is currently the Ottawa Bureau Chief for The Daily Caller, a Washington-based news service.

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