VICTORIA, British Columbia – The Canadian government's proposal to buy 18 Super Hornet aircraft as a stopgap measure before proceeding to a full competition for a new fighter jet is not only a waste of time and money but illegal, say political and industry critics of the plan.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced Nov. 22 that Canada would enter into negotiations with Boeing for the purchase of the 18 aircraft. Sajjan noted the government had been forced to proceed with the urgent acquisition because a capability gap had emerged with the current fleet of CF-18 fighters. Canada cannot meet its NORAD, NATO and other defense commitments with those aging aircraft, he added.
But Canada's former procurement chief says the Super Hornet deal is illegal and can be challenged if Lockheed Martin or other aircraft firms wanted to do so. Existing trade agreements allow for Canada to proceed with a purchase without competition if there is an urgent and unforeseeable need for goods and services required by the military, said Alan Williams, the former assistant deputy minister for materiel at Canada's Department of National Defence.
"A capability gap that was allowed to grow over many years is hardly unforeseeable," said Williams. "Bad planning is not an excuse for sole-sourcing."
Williams noted the Liberal Party government has been in power for a year and already had enough information to launch a full competition for a permanent fighter replacement.
Lockheed Martin officials have expressed their disappointment in the government's decision to buy Super Hornets but the firm has not indicated its next course of action.
Liberal Party Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed his government would hold a competition for a new jet. But he also made an election promise last year that Canada would not buy the F-35 as it was too expensive and didn't meet the country's needs.
James Bezan, the defense critic for the Conservative Party, said the CF-18 capability gap issue was concocted to support the sole-source purchase of the Super Hornet. The country's 77 CF-18 fighter jets are capable of doing the job until a full competition can be held to buy a new plane, he added.
Bezan said the decision to buy Super Hornets as a stopgap solution will end up wasting billions of dollars and valuable time needed to replace the CF-18 fleet.
Sajjan has said it will take at least another five years to run a competition to buy a fleet of jets to replace the CF-18s on a permanent basis. The government has said Lockheed Martin is welcome to enter the F-35 in that competition when it is held.
Questions have also been raised about the validity of the Sajjan's claim that the CF-18s can't defend the country.
When Lt. Gen. Michael Hood, the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, testified in April before the Commons defence committee, he didn't mention a capability gap. Instead he told lawmakers the CF-18s could continue operating until 2025 or beyond.
Concern has also been voiced about how the Super Hornet purchase will affect Canadian industry participation in the F-35 program.
Canada has said it intends to continue as a partner in the program but Lockheed Martin suggested several months ago it could reconsider participation by Canadian companies if the F-35 is not purchased.
Brian Pallister, the Conservative Party premier of the province of Manitoba, said the Super Hornet acquisition is not only a waste of tax dollars but could jeopardize aerospace firms involved in the F-35 program.
Pallister said he was particularly concerned about Magellan Aerospace in Winnipeg, a company that makes the tail assemblies for the F-35 as well as other components.
But Navdeep Bains, the government minister in charge of industry and innovation, said any deal for the Super Hornets would bring with it the equivalent amount of work for Canadian firms.