Politics

Liberals faced closed-door criticism over now-cancelled Super Hornet fighter plan: documents

The Liberal government’s now-scuttled plan to buy Super Hornet jet fighters as a stop-gap measure for the air force faced an initial storm of back room criticism from one of Canada’s leading defence companies, internal documents reveal.

Defence industry concerns surface as auditor general examines feds handling of fighter jet file

A Boeing F-18 Super Hornet performs during a demonstration flight. The federal government's plan to use the jet as an interim measure until the fighter fleet could be replaced fell after a dispute between Boeing and Ottawa over tariffs imposed on Bombardier passenger jets. (Remy de la Mauviniere/Associated Press)

The Liberal government's now-scuttled plan to buy Super Hornet jet fighters as a stop-gap measure for the air force faced an initial storm of back room criticism from one of Canada's leading defence companies, internal documents reveal.

Executives with CAE Defence and Security Canada, headquartered in Montreal, wrote and met with senior federal officials in the winter of 2017 as Public Services and Procurement Canada was negotiating a sole-source contract to purchase 18 Boeing Super Hornets.

They were upset Canada intended to buy 18 warplanes directly from the U.S. government through a foreign military sales agreement, a mechanism that severely limits direct benefits to Canadian companies.

Specifically the company that builds and operates high-tech simulators was worried about the absence of a federal plan to involve homegrown firms and that the deal was being pushed ahead without the proper safeguards.

"An inappropriately structured foreign military sale will not only cost substantially more than a Canadian purchase, it will also deprive Canadian industry of benefits it would otherwise receive," said a CAE memo, contained as part of briefing package released to CBC News under access to information legislation.

Back room manoeuvring 

Public works briefing documents written three months after the Liberal government announced its plan show —  at the time — federal officials were still "in the process of developing an economic benefits strategy" to involve Canadian industry.

The fighter jet deal with Boeing fell apart a few months later in a dispute between the company and Ottawa over tariffs imposed on Bombardier passenger jets.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson is examining the impact of extending the lives of the current fleet of 76 CF-18s, which were purchased in the 1980s. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press) (The Canadian Press)
The back room manoeuvring and angst is significant in light of the ongoing investigation by the auditor general into the Liberal government's handling of the multi-billion-dollar fighter jet file.

Instead of buying brand new Super Hornets, the federal government now intends to purchase used F-18s from Australia to fulfil what it claims is a gap in the air force's ability to carry out its duties.

Auditor General

Critics have long charged that the "capability gap" was a hasty, politically-manufactured excuse intended so the Liberals could avoid buying the F-35 stealth fighter, favoured by the previous Conservative administration.

That is one of the aspects Auditor General Michael Ferguson has chosen to examine in a report set to be tabled in Parliament this fall, The Canadian Press reported last month.

The audit will assess if National Defence is fulfilling its obligation to protect the country and will also examine the impact of extending the lives of the current fleet of 76 CF-18s, which were purchased in the 1980s.

CAE provides support to the CF-18 mission systems through a subcontract and had a lot at stake in the government's decision.

Federal officials used the meeting to soothe ruffled feathers with the company's general manager, according to the documents, obtained by CBC News under access to information legislation.

"Given the minister's responsibility for defence procurement, this meeting should serve as an assurance to CAE that the potential procurement of Super Hornet aircraft will ensure economic benefits to Canada and that it is the objective of the procurement to leverage in-service support capability," said the Feb. 14, 2017 briefing.

CAE is among Boeing's major suppliers on both the military and commercial side. It also has close ties to Bombardier and found itself in an awkward position during the passenger jet trade dispute which ended in the cancellation of the Super Hornet plan.

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.

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