The federal government was too fast to write off a proposal to build a made-in-Canada military aircraft that would be cheaper, faster and more efficient than the F-35, says retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie.
In an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, MacKenzie said he first approached officials about a year ago about the plan by Bourdeau Industries, which has offices in Canada and the U.K., to redesign the Avro Arrow CF-105 as an alternative to the F-35 stealth fighter jet.
MacKenzie said he personally delivered the proposal to the ministerial level and the Prime Minister's Office, and that it was shared with defence department officials, including incoming Chief of Defence Staff Lt.-Gen. Tom Lawson.
Lawson, who was then the second-in-command at NORAD, did not respond to the proposal. But after being directed to various officials, then associate defence minister Julian Fantino — who MacKenzie calls "a good friend" — eventually got back to him.
"He wrote me a letter in June and gave me an answer … that they did not feel it could be achieved in Canada — which was a little embarrassing — in the time required," MacKenzie told Power & Politics host Evan Solomon.
In the letter dated June 29, 2012, obtained by Power & Politics, Fantino said the proposal was not a "viable option for Canada's next generation fighter."
The Royal Canadian Air Force's mandatory requirements include stealth, secure data link communications, visual operation in no-light conditions and automatic data and sensors information sharing, among others, the letter notes, adding "the risks associated with undertaking this developmental effort would be too high to consider."
MacKenzie stressed he is not working for Bourdeau Industries, but said he is giving the project a few days' profile because he thinks it deserves consideration.
Thought revival plan was 'a joke'
While he initially thought the revival plan was "a joke," the more closely he examined it, the more he saw its potential merits for Canada's missions at home and abroad.
'While we appreciate the sentimental value of the Avro Arrow, which was cancelled 53 years ago, analysts looked at the proposal and determined that this is not a realistic option.' —Bernard Valcourt, associate minister of national defence
But convincing skeptics inside the "Ottawa beltway" that it’s more than a sentimental idea proved more difficult, MacKenzie said.
"We're talking about people who have an inherent, what seems to be, fix in for the F-35 and are not prepared to talk about alternatives. Let's face it — if they were to consider this alternative, the 105, they’d have to open the door for other people to compete too. I understand that," he said.
"But the fact is, the way that the responses have come back it seems all the decisions have been made inside the government."
The Avro Arrow was a cutting-edge military aircraft developed in the 1950s, but the project was cancelled in 1959 before production.
Now that audit firm KPMG has been tasked to review the department's figures for the project, MacKenzie said it should also review the merits of other alternatives, like the Avro Arrow, by consulting with aerospace, business and manufacturing experts. He believes the Canadian public wants an investigation of the concept to determine if it's practical.
'Not a realistic option'
"With KPMG now auditing, I would think that would be the next step. But do I expect that to happen? No," he said.
Fantino's successor, Associate Minister of National Defence Bernard Valcourt, said the project is a non-starter.
"While we appreciate the sentimental value of the Avro Arrow, which was cancelled 53 years ago, analysts looked at the proposal and determined that this is not a realistic option," he said in a statement to Power & Politics.
"The proposal to develop, test and manufacture what would effectively be a brand new aircraft is risky, and would take too long and cost too much to meet Canada's needs."
Duff Conacher, founder of Democracy Watch, questioned the ethics of MacKenzie's involvement in the project, suggesting there may be breaches of conflict of interest and post-employment rules for former public office holders. He said the involvement also exposes a "giant loophole" in lobbying rules, in that an individual can act on behalf of a company with government officials without being a registered lobbyist.