F-35 procurement process 'manipulated'

In an exclusive interview airing on CBC Radio's The House Saturday, former assistant deputy minister for the Department of National Defence Alan Williams tells host Evan Solomon the F-35 procurement process was "manipulated" in favour of the F-35 deal.

The government not only misled Canadians regarding the costs of the F-35 but the procurement process was "manipulated" to achieve the government's objective, says a retired bureaucrat who has penned a new book titled Canada, Democracy and the F-35, which is due out on Monday.

In his new book, Alan Williams, the former assistant deputy minister (Material) for National Defence who signed Canada into the second phase of the F-35 program in 2002, challenges various government assertions surrounding the F-35 and details how the procurement process was rigged in favour of the F-35 deal.

In an exclusive interview airing on CBC Radio's The House, Williams tells host Evan Solomon the decision to sole-source the F-35 "began with a breakdown in accountability and a hijacking of the process by the bureaucrats."

Williams explains that the military is responsible for telling the bureaucrats what they need in a document called the statement of requirements (SOR). Once approved, the bureaucrats are supposed to take that SOR and invite suppliers to bid on it. Only when bureaucrats have found a winning bidder can a recommendation be made to the minister in charge.

According to Williams, "the exact opposite sequence of events" took place in the case of the F-35.

Williams tells Solomon that in 2006, a note signed by Dan Ross, the senior bureaucrat responsible for procurement at National Defence, and sent to the minister of National Defence (then Gordon O'Connor), said the military had conducted its own review and concluded that the F-35 was the best aircraft to replace Canada's aging fleet of CF-18s.

The note from Ross to O'Connor reads: "The JSF family of aircraft provides the best available operational capabilities to meet Canadian operational requirements, while providing the longest service life and the lowest per aircraft cost of all options considered."

There are several problems with this note, Williams says.

For one, it precedes the actual SOR, which was only completed in 2010. Williams says "the procurement process was clearly undermined and manipulated to achieve a predetermined outcome."

Second, the note shows the bureaucrats "abdicated" their responsibility by allowing the military to use internal analysis to advise on the desired solution, Williams says.

Finally, the military simply "did not have all the necessary information from other suppliers" to reach the conclusion presented in the 2006 note to the minister of National Defence.

Government still misleading the public, Williams says

When Solomon asked Williams whether he thought the government had misled the public with respect to the costs of the F-35s, Williams said "for sure, they misled."

But according to Williams, the government didn't just mislead Canadians with respect to the costs, it is also misleading Canadians now through a handful of "false" statements being repeated day in and day out by the ministers in charge of overseeing the process.

According to Williams, the following most frequently heard statements made by the Conservatives are "all false":

  • There was a competition in 2001, so there is no need to conduct another one.
  • Canada needs the F-35 because of the industrial and regional benefits.
  • The government was just continuing along the lines established by the previous Liberal government.
  • The F-35 is the best aircraft at the best price.
  • The F-35 will cost the $75 million US.

"The costs may be a lot higher than we expect and that's why you want to do a competition where you compare capabilities and compare prices and have a public debate about which best suits Canada," says Williams, who believes it's not too late to have an "open, fair and transparent competition."

Last week, Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, told CBC Radio's The House it appeared the government was keeping "two sets of books" with  respect to the costs of the F-35s — one for internal use, and one for public "communications."

This week, appearing before the public accounts committee, Robert Fonberg, deputy defence minister, rejected that suggestion, saying there was "one book" with separate columns.

After committee, the public watchdog was once again asked whether he thought the government had misled the public with respect to the costs of the F-35s.

"Yes," Page responded.

The government has consistently maintained it did not mislead Canadians with respect to the costs of the F-35s and has accepted the recommendations made by Auditor General Michael Ferguson in his report last month.

Part of the government's response to the auditor general's findings is establishing a national fighter procurement secretariat under the purview of Public Works and Government Services to oversee the process of replacing Canada's aging fleet of CF-18s.