Greg Weston: Fantino misled by defence department over fake plane parts

Greg Weston unravels how former minister Julian Fantino could repeatedly deny there were bogus Chinese-made microchips in Canada's new Hercules transport planes when his department knew otherwise.

Officials knew counterfeit Chinese microchips were in new Hercules cockpits

In an interview with CBC News last June, then associate defence minister Julian Fantino denied Canada's 17 new Hercules military transport planes are infected with fake Chinese parts, like the kind found on the same type of aircraft in the U.S. Air Force.

Fantino wasn't telling the truth — but he wasn't lying either.

The minister's denial was in response to a damning U.S. congressional report that had just exposed the existence of the bogus parts in the cockpits of the American C-130J Hercules.

The U.S. investigation reported that a malfunction of the parts could cause the cockpit instrument panels in the giant aircraft to go blank in mid-flight with potentially "catastrophic" consequences.

Officials at National Defence headquarters in Ottawa have now admitted to CBC News that the department had known at least four months before Fantino's interview that the same counterfeit parts were also in Canada's brand new Hercules planes.

No one at the time, apparently, shared that information with the minister, even when Fantino's office asked DND officials point-blank if Canada had fake parts in its planes.

Fantino is only the latest in a long history of defence ministers hung out to dry by their own department, many of them hapless victims of a military culture in which political bosses are sometimes viewed as a passing nuisance to be circumvented as much as possible.

In this case, it is possible that an internal failure to communicate left Fantino in the dark, a classic snafu of one hand of DND not knowing what the other was doing.

If so, it may explain how DND has created such huge problems for itself with almost every big procurement — planes, helicopters, ships, armoured vehicles — over the past six years.

But there is also evidence Fantino may have been left misinformed in a bureaucratic attempt to cover up yet another embarrassment for a department already beset with billions of dollars of equipment boondoggles.

The timeline

Julian Fantino, the former associate minister of defence, is still denying there were bogus parts in Canada's new fleet of Hercules transport planes. (Canadian Press)

Here's what we now know.

Last year's U.S. congressional investigation reported that counterfeit microchips from China were first discovered in the American fleet of Hercules planes in June of 2010, after the cockpit instrument panel failed on one of the aircraft.

A top U.S. laboratory, which specializes in detecting counterfeit electronics, subsequently reported the parts had a 27 per cent failure rate in stress tests, and were "not considered to be factory original."

The American manufacturer of the cockpit instrument panels, L-3 Systems, notified its customers of the counterfeit microchips and scrapped its inventory. But it didn't recall the parts, which were by then installed in hundreds of aircraft, including the Hercs.

The congressional probe also reported that the manufacturer of the Hercules itself, Lockheed-Martin, subsequently told the U.S. military the bogus parts were actually the authentic microchips that had just been mislabelled.

Lockheed Martin apparently also told the U.S. Air Force the parts did not pose any immediate danger.

All of this — and the truth about the Hercules parts being counterfeits — became very public during well-publicized U.S. congressional hearings in November 2011.

Who knew what?

But no one, apparently, told the associate defence minister's office in Ottawa — which was then responsible for defence procurement — that there might be a problem with the new Canadian planes, even as DND was about to start taking possession of 17 of them at a cost of more than $1 billion.

On the contrary, in response to a media enquiry after the public congressional hearings in Washington, the Canadian defence department issued the first of many denials that its planes had any bogus parts.

DND now admits that three months later, in February 2012, Lockheed Martin provided the department with a "safety report" confirming there were "suspect counterfeit parts" in Canada's new Hercules fleet.

However, no one, apparently, mentioned that to the associate defence minister's office.

As in the U.S., the aircraft manufacturer's report to DND claimed the fake parts on the Canadian planes posed no immediate danger.

DND now says its own "Weapon System Manager analyzed the manufacturer's safety report and agreed this was not a safety of flight issue."

No one, apparently, mentioned any of that to the minister's office, either.

In May of last year, four months after Lockeed Martin's report to DND on the fake parts, an aide to Fantino said the department had told the minister's office in no uncertain terms that "there's no evidence of counterfeit parts."

About the same time, a memo obtained by CBC and written by one of the top officials in the branch of DND responsible for purchasing and managing the planes stated: "We do not have any information regarding counterfeit parts in CF [Canadian Forces] equipment."

DND now says that official "was not speaking on behalf of the whole department."

No one, apparently, mentioned that to the minister's office.

Instead, Fantino made his ill-fated television appearance to deny there were any counterfeit parts in the Canadian Hercs, months after at least some in his department knew there were.

Fantino has since moved on to become minister of international development, a little older in the ways of Ottawa but apparently still in the dark.

He continues to maintain "the government wasn't aware of any counterfeit parts at the time."

Even now, apparently, no one at DND has told him the truth.