Could Canada take bids on fighter jets and also keep the F-35 option open?

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s vow that as prime minister he would hold an open competition for new jet fighters, rather than proceeding with the F-35 deal that the Conservatives want to pursue, sounds smart enough. All things being equal, open bidding for defence contracts is the way to go.

Yet it’s interesting that Ignatieff doesn’t appear quite ready to leave the controversial F-35 agreement behind in the dust. He seems to tacitly concede that the F-35 scheme has something going for it by asserting that a Liberal government would somehow remain part of that arrangement, while sort of walking away from it.

“There is no penalty for cancelling the current deal and holding an open competition for our next fighter jet,” says the Liberal news release. “A Liberal government would remain committed to the 2006 Memorandum of Understanding that gives Canadian industry access to F-35 contracts, without any obligation to purchase the planes.”

In other words, Ignatieff suggests that a Liberal government could scrap the agreement to buy Lockheed Martin’s so-called Joint Strike Fighter—at least for long enough to check out the competition—and yet “remain committed” to the complex, eight-country MoU that sets the terms for designing, developing and, ultimately, manufacturing Lockheed Martin’s so-called Joint Strike Fighter.

But Dan Ross, the Department of National Defence’s associate deputy minister for materiel, told the House defence committee just last week that Canada can’t have it both ways. “In terms of the JSF MoU, it should be made clear that, in order to run a competition, Canada would be forced to withdraw from the MoU,” Ross told the MPs.

“If we withdrew from the MoU,” he continued, “we would lose key benefits. We would be subject to penalties, the industrial guarantees we already have would be negated, and Canada’s industrial plans with our partners would be suspended.”

So a fundamental point is in dispute here. Ignatieff asserts Canada can edge away from the F-35 consortium, at least temporarily, without ditching the juicy parts of the deal. Ross asserts that the government can do no such thing. Sorting this out is important because, as things stand, the F-35 terms look pretty favourable. Unless DND is dissembling wildly, the deal shields Canada from the cost overruns now plaguing the design and development of the jets.

If that’s true, then the real question might not be so much whether Canada might get a better deal on some other aircraft, but whether we need  new fighter jets at all. This is the point that’s been emphasized by the most outspoken critic of the purchase, defence policy analyst Steven Staples of the Rideau Institute.

“The point is that Canada does not need high-end fighter-bomber capabilities for expeditionary roles,” Staples wrote in his report Pilot Error: Why the F-35 stealth fighter is wrong for Canada. “The decision to acquire such capabilities is thus a matter of choice, not necessity. Since such capabilities are also not required for the surveillance and control of North American airspace, there is no good argument for procuring the F-35.”

The case that Canada might not need fighter jets at all strikes me as more plausible than anything I’ve heard so far about the chances of Canada securing a much better deal by considering bids from the makers of the other available jets.



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