Canadian Fighter Procurement: The Confusion Continues

by Steve Saideman

I was not thrilled with the rollout of the new decision regarding the next Fighter for the Royal Canadian Air Force.  Turns out that the Canadian government was not entirely thrilled with my take, so I got to chat with someone who sought to clarify the decision to decide eventually while buying some interim planes.  I cannot identify my source, but, like the Lockheed and General Dynamics folks I have chatted with in the past, they know these files far better than I do.  My research is neither on these systems nor on defence procurement, so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

Let’s check my assertions from the post to what I learned/what I was told this morning:

  • Will buying 18 Super-Hornets and all of their stuff game the eventual decision?  I was told probably not as it is one squadron, so all of the gear/weapons/simulators/etc that go to this one squadron will probably not be enough to make a big dent in the calculations as they make the bigger decision.
  • The real revelation in the conversation was this: the 18 planes are not supposed to be around when the eventual fleet of new planes is ready.  The idea is to fly these 18 F-18 E/Fs (or whatever their designation will be) until early 2030s and no further.  They are supposed to be interim and not more than that.  So, the 18 would only fly for Canada for 12-15 years.  I wonder why this has not gotten more attention.  Of course, what this government does and the government of 203x does are two different things–I doubt that the future government will have to get rid of the planes just because a prior government bought them as interim planes. But I am not a lawyer who knows government contracts well, so perhaps the future’s hands will be tied.  But I doubt it.
  • Five years?  I was told it really does take five years to do a serious competition.  That the Conservatives never really did a serious competition but an options analysis, which is not the same thing.  I just don’t know, but I really don’t buy it that it takes five years.  Someone else I know told me that a competition could take five years because of reasons, but again, it looks like kicking the can down the road until the next election to me.
  • What capability gap I asked?  There are two answers to this question of why Canada needs more planes soon: the Conservatives underfunded maintenance/operations (yes, I and others were critical and had guessed this is where the magic defence savings were coming from) and they had a different notion of risk tolerance.
    • Does Canada have enough planes to do all the RCAF is supposed to do?  To patrol Canadian skies as part of NORAD and to participate in the very regular multilateral commitments–patrolling over Iceland and the Baltics, the occasional mission such as Libya and Iraq?  We know that Canada has 77 CF-18s right now, of which maybe 1/5 are entirely out of commission being refurbished/renovated/repaired/re-somethinged.
    • The actual number needed to do everything is not public (more on that below), but I had mentioned 65 F-35s as the Conservative plan.  It was pointed out to me that the Conservative plan built in a greater tolerance of risk–that anytime the RCAF is deployed elsewhere, it may not be quite as able to respond to events over Canada.  That the 65 plane figure was not bottom up from what Canada needs to meet its commitments, but calculated from what Canada could buy given the budget envelope.
    • Which leads to this: the number of planes and the attitude towards risk are political decisions, not military ones.  The military will surely say we can do the job no matter what we have (within reason), but if you give us less planes, we have more risk and if you give us more planes, we will have less risk.  How serious the risks?   I have no idea.  Because I am not an expert and because I have none of the information.
  • Which leads me to the same conclusion, but might be driven by confirmation bias due to the big current project: what Canada really needs is a serious defence committee that can ask tough questions, get answers, and assess whether the government is b.s.-ing, how much of what is going on now is due to bad Conservative decisions, and all the rest.  But that will not happen now or anytime soon.  The parliamentarians prefer to ask simplistic questions at question period to score points rather than actually learn stuff.

In sum, I am confused.  I am not an expert, and the experts keep telling me conflicting stuff.  There have been op-eds by smart people who have criticized this decision, and the person on the phone today knows this stuff far better than I do. I just wish we had a better oversight process that might adjudicate this a bit.

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