With the recent release of the Auditor General’s report on Canada’s Fighter Force, it is once again a timely moment to reflect on Canadian defence procurement. Retired senior RCAF officer and former NORAD deputy commander, Lieutenant General (Ret’d) Louis Cuppens, examines the history of procurement over the past half century and offers his own thoughts on this ongoing discussion.
In Canada, governments change with frequency, however, when Canada commits its Armed Forces to a campaign, claims are made that they are “well equipped”. Historical review reveals that such claims are often false. Examples include Hong Kong during the Second World War, 56 Reconnaissance Squadron to the Middle East in 1956, our participation in the Korean War, and in recent times the promises made to meet NORAD and NATO commitments simultaneously.
Unlike Canada, the largest sector in the USA is the Defense Industry – they have a procurement system that is timely, and it delivers; but not without controversy. Other NATO allies seem to have adequate systems – why not Canada? Is it a matter of “pork barrelling”, incompetence, or a lack of attention to our Defence Industry? Does our Defence Industry even have a voice that is heard by our elected governments? With Public Services and Procurement Canada, Global Affairs Canada, Treasury Board, and the Departments of National Defence and Innovation Canada (formerly Industry Canada) all seeking input to National Defence needs, it is no wonder that Defence Procurement has been long “off the rails” and heading nowhere.
Readers know only too well the history of the EH-I01 fiasco and the fighter aircraft replacement programme to name just a few examples. Each has cost the government and the taxpayers – you and I – millions of dollars and national reputation.
With the need to procure a replacement for our aging fighter fleet becoming more dire with each passing year, a brief background is in order. Plans to replace the fighter fleet were well underway in the early 1990s. Two of the largest aerospace companies in the world – Boeing and Lockheed Martin were competing to deliver the next generation fighter aircraft to the USA military.
Lockheed Martin won the U.S. competition with the F35 Lightning design and the global aerospace marketplace changed as a consequence. Nations were invited to participate in the development programme, and Canada (then under the Liberal government) joined a number of other nations as a financial and research and development partner. Canada continues to do so.
The positive press surrounding the R&D partnership no doubt emboldened Harper’s Conservative government to announce its intentions to sole-source procurement of the F35 Lightening, including a schedule of delivery. Controversy quickly followed, resulting in a decision to review the project. In the meantime, Canadian Aerospace companies had become engaged in bidding for manufacturing opportunities. More than 60 Canadian companies would be involved in providing landing gear, sensors, electronic components, and engine components among others.
With next government change (back to Liberal rule), the Trudeau government initially announced that the decision to acquire the F-35 was flawed. It began to dither over acquisition competition. At the time, tests on the variants we were not considering were not proving successful (they are now), and may have led PM Trudeau to announce that the “aircraft does not fly” and confirm there was no intention to acquire the F-35. He said that competition and rules would soon be announced. While a competition has yet to be initiated, requests for interest have been circulated to interested companies.
Attempts by the present Minister of National Defence to support government indecision have shown an attempt to contract an acquisition of the F-18 Super Hornet from Boeing. After public backlash and appeals by Bombardier this idea was scrapped. During the development of this issue, the Minister announced a “capability gap” that needed urgent attention. The existence of such a gap has been deemed questionable by former Commanders of the Air Force. The next bit of fumbling and to save face of government was the decision to purchase some used F-18 aircraft from the Australian Air Force (they are retiring theirs to be replaced by the F-35).
With a federal election looming in October 2019, and the state of the aerospace industry in Quebec (recent Bombardier layoffs), the government does not wish to have fighter aircraft replacement as an election issue. The clock moves on “tempus fugit”.
What about the voices of the aerospace companies that could have been involved in the manufacture of the F-35? What about the yearly amount of funds that Canada continues to contribute to the development of the F-35 (approximately $152M thus far)? Will we continue to be defence “freeloaders”?
Surely, in our mature democracy, someone will be held to account for failure to deliver timely and cost-effective defence programmes. PM Trudeau promised to fix defence procurement as part of his many promises to be elected – another promise broken??
Louis Cuppens retired from the Royal Canadian Air Force at the rank of Lieutenant-General. He served as deputy commander of NORAD from 1995 to 1998.