Liberals set to announce fighter jet competition, purchase of used Aussie jets next week

The Liberal government intends to announce the "launch" of its long-awaited competition to replace the air force’s aging CF-18s next week — at the same time it unveils a plan to buy used Australian jet fighters as stopgap measure, CBC News has learned.

Conservatives describe Australian fighter jet purchase akin to buying a 'bucket of bolts'

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan wouldn't reveal details about the forthcoming competition, as Canada seeks to replace its aging fighter jets. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The Liberal government intends to announce the "launch" of its long-awaited competition to replace the air force's aging CF-18s next week — at the same time it unveils a plan to buy used Australian jet fighters as stop-gap measure, CBC News has learned. 

Multiple government and industry sources say what the public will see is the first step "in a long road" toward the issuing of a formal tender in early 2019 and the eventual acquisition of brand new warplanes by the mid-2020s.

Significantly, from a political perspective, the government is considering ripping a page out of its recent warship-building playbook and establishing a list of pre-qualified bidders, said a source familiar with the file, but who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A final decision on whether to take that step has not been made, but it would potentially give the Liberals ongoing leverage in nasty trade disputes, like the one between Boeing and Bombardier.

Getting the full competition underway would please the commander of the air force, who, in a sit-down interview with CBC News on Wednesday, said the sooner it gets underway, the better.

"Can we do it faster? That would be the challenge I would give my colleagues across government," said Lt.-Gen. Mike Hood.

"I'm ready to take it on faster, but I also recognize the government's process requirements for an open and transparent competition. They've stated it very publicly and I am supportive of their view to take that way. I just want it to go faster."

Sharing weapons technology

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan wouldn't comment Wednesday on the specifics of what the government intends to do in the fighter jet competition, but knowing what the companies can deliver is paramount.

"We want to make sure during the competition that anybody who competes...can actually live up to — to those requirements," Sajjan said, referring to the air force statement of requirements, which sets out expected missions and capabilities.

Sajjan on competition to replace CF-18

4 years ago
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan spoke with the CBC's Chris Rands after Question Period on Wednesday 1:16

"These requirements are not only about having an aircraft for now, but we need to make sure this aircraft is there to serve us in the future."

Next week's announcement is not only expected to lay out the process for acquiring new jets, but set down a framework for consultation with both "industry and foreign governments."

That is a crucial aspect because of the sometimes bruising backroom battles that went on over the navy's $60 billion frigate replacement program. Federal procurement officials on that file were surprised to find foreign governments balking at sharing top secret schematics for weapons systems.

Upgrading Aussie jets

The Liberals, during the last election campaign, pledged not buy the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 stealth fighter and — for a time — seemed to be leaning toward the Super Hornet, which is built by Chicago, Ill.,-based Boeing.

The perception was only reinforced a year ago when the government announced it would pursue a $6.3 billion sole-source deal to buy 18 Super Hornets as a stop-gap measure to bolster the air force ahead of a full-blown replacement of the existing 1980s vintage CF-18s.

That deal was effectively scuttled when Boeing filed a trade complaint last spring against Montreal-based aerospace manufacturer Bombardier over passenger jet sales.

Canada is expected to announce next week that it will purchase a number of Royal Australian Air Force jets. (Reuters)

The Super Hornet plan will be formally put to rest with next week's announcement that Canada will buy 18 used Australian "classic" Hornets.

Hood said, should the government decide to proceed with the Australian deal, the used fighters will need structural upgrade to make them equal to the CF-18s, which have been given life extensions to take them up to 2025.

'Bucket of bolts'

Opposition Conservatives say they're aghast the Liberals would consider buying used fighters, even as a stop-gap, and demanded the government get on with the full replacement program.  

"The Liberals are far more concerned about politics than doing what is right for our air force and for our taxpayers," said Conservative MP and former cabinet minister Tony Clement on Wednesday. "Will the government abandoned this ill-advised purchase of a bucket of bolts and get to work now to permanently replace our CF-18s?"

Sajjan pointed to the former Conservative government's record over the failed attempt to buy F-35s and fired back: "Maybe he should have been more passionate and actually purchased the equipment 10 years ago when it should have been replaced."

With files from the CBC's Chris Rands