A move by Canada to postpone any F-35 buys until 2018 means decisions will wait until after the next federal election. (US Air Force)
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Canada has told the US government it won’t be in a position to purchase the F-35 fighter jet until 2018, a move that critics of the aircraft say intentionally delays the controversial procurement until after the next federal election.
The decision has a number of ramifications. It will allow the ruling Conservative Party government to claim during the 2015 election campaign that no decision has yet been made on the purchase of a new fighter jet.
But if the Conservatives are defeated in that election, set for October 2015, it could mean further delays or even a cancellation of the proposed buy, since the country’s other political parties have raised concerns about the acquisition. Both the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party favor an open competition for a new fighter jet.
The F-35 Joint Program Office in the US has amended the Canadian “buy profile,” which indicates numbers of aircraft and timelines of the purchase.
“This moves the notional date of first delivery of aircraft from 2017 to 2018,” the Canadian government noted in a statement. No official reason was provided by Canada for the change in dates.
But industry, military and government officials say the change means a final decision won’t need to be made until after 2015.
“This whole thing is designed to delay and to get the Conservatives past the next election so they don’t have to come clean with Canadians about their F-35 plans,” Liberal Party defense critic Joyce Murray said.
Her analysis was echoed by Jack Harris, defense critic with the official opposition New Democratic Party, as well as Alan Williams, the Department of National Defence’s former head of procurement who approved Canada’s participation in the F-35 program.
Canada’s Conservative Party government committed in 2010 to purchasing 65 F-35s, but the acquisition soon became a major political albatross around the neck of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Opposition MPs alleged his government misled Canadians on the F-35’s price and performance.
In March 2011, the majority of the members of Parliament supported a motion that declared the Conservative government in contempt of Parliament over its withholding of information about the F-35, as well as other key financial documents on other issues. That motion of non-confidence in the government led to the federal election in May 2011, but despite the controversy, the Conservative Party was re-elected.
But in April 2012, Canadian Auditor General Michael Ferguson found Department of National Defence officials had withheld key information from Parliament about the fighter jet, underestimated costs and didn’t follow proper procurement rules.
In December 2012, the government, under continuing fire over the increasing cost of the F-35s, announced it would put the procurement on a temporary hold and examine other aircraft.
That process continues, but senior officers from the Royal Canadian Air Force have publicly stated they are preparing for the eventual delivery of the F-35.
Until the evaluation of other aircraft is complete, the government will not decide on how to proceed, said Pierre-Alain Bujold, a spokesman for Public Works and Government Services Canada. That department handles federal procurements.
Bujold said the “work is being completed as expeditiously as possible,” but the department could not provide any timelines on when it might be finished or a final decision on an acquisition made.
That’s because the process is a public relations exercise, former defense procurement chief Alan Williams alleges.
“It’s all designed to buy the government time so they can pick the opportune moment to announce the purchase of the F-35,” Williams said.
Jack Harris, defense critic with the official opposition New Democratic Party, said the F-35 acquisition has the potential to hurt the Conservative government’s image with voters in the upcoming election.
“They portray themselves as strong fiscal managers, but they have bungled numerous defense procurement files, particularly the F-35,” he said. “They don’t want this mess hanging over their heads during an election campaign.”
In his 2012 examination, Ferguson found that although Department of National Defence officials were publicly claiming the F-35 purchase would cost CAN $14.7 billion (US $13 billion), they had already quietly estimated the actual price tag to be $25 billion.
Mike Barton, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Canada, said the delay will not affect the F-35 program. When Canada is ready to place its order for the planes, the company will respond, he said.
Canada is still a partner in the program and has not informed the US government or Lockheed Martin of any plans to change that.
Canada operates 78 modernized CF-18 fighters and was planning to replace those with the F-35A, the conventional-takeoff-and-landing version of the F-35. ■