Liberals to consider U.S. Super Hornet offer, despite battle with Boeing

The Liberal government has yet to issue a formal withdrawal from the plan to buy 18 Super Hornet jet fighters, even though it says Boeing is no longer a trusted partner and it is looking at other options, including used Kuwaiti jets.

Canadian military officials check out used Kuwaiti FA-18s as alternative to Super Hornets

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says the government is considering buying used Kuwaiti FA-18s, but they are not on the market yet. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Canadian government, despite all of its rhetoric about Boeing no longer being a trusted a defence partner, still plans this fall to review a U.S. government offer to purchase Super Hornet jet fighters from the company.

That offer has to be delivered, and several sources close to the file in Washington and Ottawa say no formal notice has been sent to the Pentagon indicating that Canada is no longer interested in the stopgap purchase.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was pressed on that point during a conference call with reporters Thursday, where he re-emphasized the Liberal government is looking at "other options" to fill an urgent requirement for the warplanes.

"It's very clear we're sending a strong message," Sajjan said. "Having said that, the process [to acquire interim fighters] is taking place."

Public Works and Procurement Services was asked on Thursday about the status of any potential withdrawal notice, but an official wouldn't comment and only pointed to the department's web site, which says the federal government is still awaiting Washington's formal response.

It also says, when the offer arrives this fall, it "will be reviewed" but that "Canada is under no obligation to purchase" the jets.

Government-to-government offers always have an expiration date.

The federal cabinet has the option — in addition to withdrawal — of letting the decision linger without giving an answer, said one source with knowledge of the file.

The fact that the government has taken no action and will wait for the U.S. proposal is a sign to defence observers that it is scrambling for some kind of leverage in the dispute Boeing has with Bombardier.

The process to buy the fighters directly from the U.S. government was initiated last March when Canada delivered a letter to the Pentagon, establishing that it needed 18 Super Hornets on an urgent basis.

Battling Boeing

The planned sole-source deal to buy Boeing Super Hornets, estimated to be in the range of $6.3 billion, was put in jeopardy in the spring when Boeing filed a trade complaint against Bombardier, the Montreal-based aerospace and train manufacturer, claiming government subsidies allow it to sell passenger jets at below market cost. 

The Liberal government's line about Boeing, from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on down, has been: "We won't do business with a company that's busy trying to sue us and trying to put our aerospace workers out of business.''

It has been often repeated in the aftermath of the the U.S. Commerce Department's ruling on Tuesday which proposes to slap a nearly 220 per cent tariff on Bombardier planes sold in the U.S. market.

The Conservatives seized on the contradiction between the government's tough talk and actions on Thursday.

"The process for replacing Canada's fighter jets has disintegrated into a very expensive and embarrassing mess," said former Conservative treasury board president Tony Clement.

Canada has not signed a contract, nor put any money down on the interim purchase, but even still, Clement said the Liberals had painted themselves into a corner at the expense of the military.

A U.S. naval air crew walks in front of a squadron of Super Hornet fighters at Naval Air Station Oceana, Va. Canada still plans to review a U.S. government offer to purchase Super Hornet jet fighters from Boeing. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Sajjan, who was visiting Canadian troops in Latvia on Thursday, confirmed military planners had looked at the possibility of buying used FA-18s from Kuwait, which flies the same variants of the fighter as Canada.

"We have looked at the feasibility of the Kuwaiti option," Sajjan said. "It is not as simple as what model these airplanes are. There are other factors that go into play here."

Kuwait intends to sell its 27 FA-18 C and D models over the next few years because it is buying 28 Super Hornet jets from Boeing.

The planes are attractive because they have been upgraded with state-of-the-art targeting pods and other features that would make for an easy transition.

Kuwaiti jets

The problem, according to Sajjan, is that the Kuwait jets are not on the market yet.

"They're not currently available, but we still want to pursue every single option," he said.

National Defence has also looked at used Australian FA-18s, which include older A and B models, similar to the ones Canada began flying in the 1980s.

The Liberals started the Super Hornet debate last year when they insisted the jets were needed because the air force could not meet both its Norad and NATO commitments simultaneously.

Despite the supposed urgency, Sajjan would not be pinned to a timeline to deliver new, or used, warplanes.

He also wouldn't rule out barring Boeing from future competitions, including the one to replace the entire fleet of fighters and programs such as the air force's new air-to-air refuellers. 

"Our government is not going to let our aerospace sector be attacked in this manner and we can't do business with a company that treats us in this way," he said.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, 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.