OTTAWA — How Canada will replace its fighter aircraft fleet and whether it continues its involvement in the Iraq war will be decided by the outcome of the country's federal election in October.

At issue is whether Canada should move ahead with the purchase of the F-35 joint strike fighter or hold a competition for the multibillion-dollar acquisition for new planes.

Two of the three main political parties in the election race — the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party (NDP) — both say that if elected, they will hold a competition, inviting international aerospace companies to bid on replacing the existing fleet of CF-18 fighter jets fleet.

The Conservative Party, which has been in power for the last nine years and had originally committed Canada to the purchase of the F-35, hasn't yet outlined how it would proceed. In December 2012, the Conservative government, under continuing fire over questions about the increasing cost of the F-35 program, announced it would put the procurement on hold. That acquisition process has yet to restart.

Defense analyst Martin Shadwick said despite a potential price-tag of tens of billions of dollars for new fighters, the issue has not been discussed by the candidates for the Oct. 19 election.

"This election will shape how Canada's next fighter jet is purchased, but defense issues are rarely discussed on the campaign trail and this election is no exception," said Shadwick, who teaches strategic studies at York University in Toronto.

He noted the Canadian public is more focused on the country's economy, which is in a recession. Defense issues could emerge later in the election campaign but Shadwick said he doubts they will play a major role.

"The public is not looking for anything radical on defense from the political parties," he explained. "They want to know there is an adequate defense capability and that it's affordable."

The October election will also have an effect on Canada’s mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, often called ISIL, he noted.

Last In October 2014, the Conservative Party government committed a force of 600 Canadian military personnel, fighter jets, refueling tankers and surveillance aircraft to the air campaign against ISIL the militant group. It also sent 69 special operationsforces troops to train Kurdish troops in northern Iraq.

New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair said if his party forms the next government he would end Canada's participation in the bombing campaign and withdraw all military personnel from the mission. The NDP would instead boost humanitarian aid to the region. But Mulcair has suggested that if the United Nations or NATO takes command of the mission, Canada would consider further participation.

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has also said if his party forms the next government it would end Canadian participation in the bombing campaign but keep military trainers in Iraq. Canada would also increase humanitarian aid to the region, Trudeau added.

Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper is suggesting that if he is re-elected as prime minister, the mission will be extended.

"The intervention has had the effect of largely stopping the advance [of ISIL) the Islamic State group], particularly in the north of Iraq and to some degree in other parts of Iraq and Syria — not maybe as much we’d like," he told a campaign rally on Aug. 31. "To protect our country, we are going to have to have a long and sustained strategy with our international partners."

The Conservatives have promoted their strong support for the Canadian military. They point out they have increased defense spending from CAN $14.5 billion (US $10.3 billion) in 2006 to (CAN) $20.1 billion in 2015.

Harper argues that the Conservatives are the natural choice to ensure a strong military. "Others would make very different choices, — wrong choices, frankly, irresponsible choices," Harper said.

Liberal Party defense critic Joyce Murray counters that the Conservatives have developed a number of myths surrounding their strong support of the military. Defense spending, she noted, has dropped below 1 percent of GDP.

A significant number of defense procurement projects, from the building of ships to the acquisition of new fighter jets, are stalled, she added.

The New Democratic Party has also highlighted the Conservative government's failure to deliver on military acquisition projects, in particular the purchase of new search-and-rescue aircraft.

NDP defense critic Jack Harris has noted that said if the his party forms the next government, it would enhance the country’s capabilities in the Arctic as well as improve search and rescue. But as a first step, an NDP government would launch a review to ensure defense policy matches the country’s needs and foreign policy, he added.

Shadwick said the traditionally left-leaning NDP appears to be ready to adopt a more defense-friendly posture as it tries to appeal to a wider range of voters.

At the current time, tThe NDP is leading in the polls.


David Pugliese is the Canada correspondent for Defense News.

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