Ottawa releases draft tender on purchase of new fighter jets

The effort to replace the air force’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighters took a small step forward Monday when Public Services and Procurement Canada released a draft tender and asked for feedback from the makers of new jets.

It's the first sign of movement on the file since the competition was launched almost a year ago

A CF-18 Hornet, on the ground at St. John's International Airport. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

The effort to replace the air force's aging fleet of CF-18 fighters took a small step forward Monday when Public Services and Procurement Canada released a draft tender and asked for feedback from the makers of new jets.

There are five companies in the running: France's Dassault Aviation; Saab of Sweden; Airbus Defence and Space out of Britain; and Boeing and Lockheed Martin in the U.S.

The manufacturers will have about eight weeks to comment on various aspects of the proposed tender before the government finalizes the document.

A full-fledged request for proposals is not expected to be released until the new year.

The department said input from the manufacturers "is critical to the overall success of this procurement and for selecting the right fighter aircraft to meet Canada's needs."

A slow process

It has been almost a year since Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan formally "launched" competition to replace the CF-18s, which were originally purchased in the 1980s but have received significant upgrades in the decades since.

At the same time, Sajjan also announced the federal government would buy used Australian F-18s of the same vintage as Canada's current fighter fleet.

That purchase is meant to serve as a stopgap to ensure the air force can meet its NATO and NORAD commitments at the same time.

The Liberal government is looking to buy 88 new jets, but the first ones aren't likely to arrive until the mid-2020s.

The competition among manufacturers for Canada's business is expected to be fierce.

Lockheed Martin will pitch its F-35 stealth fighter, which the former Conservative government was prepared to buy until the auditor general criticized both Public Works and National Defence in 2012. The AG said, among other things, that the departments had not done enough homework to justify the multi-billion-dollar purchase.

Boeing is in line to offer the Super Hornet — a larger, more advanced version of the F-18 — but the Chicago, IL.-based company and the Liberal government traded blows last year in a dispute over passenger jets and Bombardier.

The Liberals initially had planned to buy Super Hornets as a stopgap instead of the Australian fighters, but cancelled the purchase because of the dispute.

Advantage: Europe?

Airbus plans to offer its Eurofighter Typhoon. Saab will pitch the latest version of its Gripen, while Dassault has the Rafale.

The European aircraft-makers all privately expressed optimism about the competition last spring at an Ottawa defence industry trade show.

For years, Canada has been seen as favouring U.S. manufacturers because of what the military called "interoperability issues."

But recent trade disputes and political tensions between Ottawa and Washington have given contractors outside of North America a morale boost.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.