An F-35 panel, great—but the hard decisions still loom

John Geddes on fresh starts and tough choices
John Geddes

After a flurry of subtly conflicting stories, the most likely next step in the federal government’s hopelessly bungled program to buy Canada some new fighter jets now looks like the appointment next week of an expert panel, which will be asked to survey the available options.

To the blissfully uninitiated, that must sound blandly sensible. To the rest of us, the panel’s very existence will finally refute and rebuke several years of insistence by Conservative politicians and Department of National Defence officials that Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was the only plausible jet for Canada’s future needs. No point, they told us, to look any further.

But if the naming of an independent panel represents the welcome injection of a more open-minded approach, its creation alone doesn’t guarantee either of two developments that critics of the F-35 are hoping for: it doesn’t mean the F-35 is out of the running and it doesn’t mean the government will ultimately hold a competitive bidding process for the new jets.

We won’t be sure until next week exactly what the panel will be asked to explore. But Christian Leuprecht, a security expert in Kingston, Ont., jointly appointed to the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, says one thing is clear: the panel will find cheaper off-the-shelf options available, including U.S. Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet, the European EADS consortium’s Eurofighter, Saab of Sweden’s Gripen, Dassault of France’s Rafale.

“A number of these planes you can get for 50 per cent to 75 per cent of the cost of the F-35,” Leuprecht says. But he stresses that’s just considering the up-front cost. The F-35 might still turn out to offer significant advantages in terms of long-term maintenance costs, expected lifespan and, especially, operational versatility. “I think the government wants to come back and say, ‘We’ve looked at the F-35 and four others, and here are our options’.”

Wouldn’t that sort of candid clarity be a refreshing change? Throughout the F-35 decision-making process, federal officials consistently tried to shut down any discussion of other options for what they used to call our “fifth-generation” fighter. “Let’s state the obvious,” Dan Ross, then the top Defence bureaucrat on the file, told MPs on the House defence committee a couple of years back, “you must have more than one viable supplier to have a competition.  There is only one fifth-generation fighter available.”

And that was, of course, the F-35. Starting last spring,  though, the government pivoted sharply away from that position. Even the new chief of defence staff, formerly a big fan of the F-35, said recently other options exist. But even with that acknowledgment, Leuprecht says, there’s no reason to assume a full-blown call for competitive bids must eventually follow. “Whether it ends up having a competitive process or not,” he says, “the government wants to have a much better rationale for why this is the best choice, or why it’s not the best choice.”

The panel will reportedly be asked to submit its findings sometime early next year. That seems hurried, but time to come to a decision is not unlimited. The CF-18 fighters Canada now flies are expected to be phased out between 2017 and 2020. “New planes don’t show up overnight,” Leuprecht says. “By the time we train pilots, this can be a two-, three-, four-year lead time.

But if the panel must work fast, Leuprecht points out it will hardly be toiling in isolation. There’s the KPMG report on the F-35 program that’s to be released next week, confirming much higher lifetime costs for the Joint Strike Fighter than previously admitted by the government. There’s whatever the Public Works bureaucrats who took over the lead on this file from Defence last year are discovering. And there’s the viewpoint of Defence, likely still staunchly pro-F-35.

From all these sources of analysis, the government needs to find a way out of this maze of its own creation. Next week might look like a fresh start, but the hard choices still loom for sometime in 2013.