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Government quietly signed F-35 memorandum in March despite election promise

By Tim Naumetz      

A tentative acquisition schedule for the warplane was required to stay in the U.S. consortium.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan wrapped up a review of the government's defence policy in July, while his department was keeping its hand in the multinational F-35 program. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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The Liberal government signed a “decision memorandum” with the F-35 joint strike fighter office last March that included a possible acquisition of 65 Lockheed Martin stealth attack planes beginning in 2020, the Department of National Defence has disclosed.

The “notional” timetable for the potential acquisition over five years was the same calendar set out in 2014 by the former Conservative government before it delayed an F-35 acquisition decision until after the 2015 election year, according to information DND provided to The Hill Times in response to questions about the current status of Canada’s involvement in the F-35 fighter program.

In addition to signing the memo laying out the potential F-35 purchase schedule, the Liberals also paid $32.9-million to the U.S. office organizing the F-35 program in June to support the development of the warplane, allowing Canada the option of staying in the program, the Canadian Press reported.

In the recent controversy over the federal cabinet’s decision to sole-source an acquisition of 18 Boeing Company F-18 Super Hornets to replenish Canada’s aging fleet of Boeing CF-18 Hornet fighter jets, the government has stated Canada would continue to take part in development and production of the F-35 as part of a U.S.-led consortium that formed in 2006.

But, while reiterating Canadian aerospace companies would continue to have access to F-35 production through Canada’s membership in the nine-country consortium, the government did not publicize its decision to file a new acquisition schedule, however tentative, as part of ongoing participation in the F-35 project.

A spokesperson for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.) said the notice to the F-35 project office was routine.

“Like all partners in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), Canada signs a yearly decision memorandum,” Mr. Sajjan’s press secretary, Jordan Owens, said.

“It is simply a mandatory element of program participation, which has resulted in significant economic benefits to Canadian companies,” Ms. Owens wrote in an emailed comment.

Although the March memorandum included the notional buy profile contained in the 2014 document, Ms. Owens said Canada has sent the notice to the Joint Strike Office every year since the F-35 production and development phase of the project began in 2006.

Ms. Owens noted the government’s recent decision to launch a competition to replace the CF-18 fleet, which is open to the maker of the F-35, Lockheed Martin.

Canada’s aerospace industry has so far won $925-million in contracts for F-35 production.

All options open

The former Conservative government in 2012 suspended its plan to acquire a fleet of 65 F-35 attack planes following a scathing report that year from Auditor General Michael Ferguson, who touched off a storm of controversy with a report to Parliament finding the Defence Department had withheld more than $10-billion in sustainment and other lifecycle costs for the F-35 fleet in its own report to Parliament prior to the 2011 federal election.

The Conservative government froze an acquisition budget for a new fighter fleet at $9-billion, and launched an analysis of market options, including the F-35 and other modern fighter jets, but did not announce any decision as the 2015 general election neared.

“Canada remained a partner in the JSF program with an option to procure the F-35 at a later date, and we still remain a partner to date, with an option to procure the F-35 in the future,” a spokesman for the Department of National Defence told the Hill Times in a recent exchange of emails about Canada’s current relations with the Joint Strike Fighter Program office near Washington, D.C.

Asked if the Canadian government had filed or rescinded a final production order to the JSF and the U.S. Department of Defense, senior communications officer Evan Koronewski replied: “No final production order was ever submitted; therefore, no production order was rescinded.”

The former government had pushed back potential acquisition and delivery timelines for an F-35 acquisition before it submitted its tentative acquisition timetable to the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office in 2014, prior to the 2015 election.

The Hill Times has learned that, without making the decision public, the new Liberal government resumed the Conservative government’s tentative acquisition submissions to the F-35 consortium office only five months into its first term, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) key election campaign promise that a Liberal government would not acquire Lockheed Martin F-35 attack planes to replace the CF-18 fleet.

“Canada provides an adjusted/updated notional buy profile and delivery schedule to the [JSF] every year,” the department said in an email. “This is standard course and is essentially what keeps pushing our schedule to the right.”

“The last update was signed in March 2016. As part of the planning cycle at the [JSF], all partners provide updates annually and then sign a ‘decision memorandum’ that captures the latest notional delivery schedules,” the department said.

The 2014 “notional Canadian buy schedule” for Canada to acquire 65 F-35 aircraft, which the Liberal government adopted for its submission to the Joint Strike Fighter Office in March, sets the first acquisition round at four planes in 2020, with the acquisition of nine F-35s in 2021, and 13 more jets each year from 2022 through 2025.

“The notional delivery schedule is over five years and would begin in 2020,” the department said as it forwarded a copy of the calendar. “Keep in mind this information is for Joint Strike Fighter program planning purposes only.”

When the government signed the new “decision memorandum” last March, it had already come under fire for another aspect of its fighter jet election promise—while Mr. Trudeau had ruled out the F-35, he at the same time promised an open competition to replace the CF-18 fleet, which had been depleted to 77 aircraft following Canada’s initial round of CF-18 acquisitions in 1984.

Mr. Sajjan has since argued sole-source acquisition of the Boeing fighter planes is allowed under federal procurement law because of the urgent situation that has been created through Canada’s decision to include CF-18 fighter aircraft as part of the country’s increase in military support with NATO partners in eastern Europe.

At the same time, the government has announced it will hold a competition to acquire the remaining aircraft to replace the CF-18 fleet, with a final decision to be made in 2020, after the next federal election.

Conservative MP James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, Man.) was unaware of the government’s new memorandum to the Joint Strike Fighter office and accused the Liberals of failing to live up to their campaign promise of transparency. He said the government has hidden other aspects of National Defence information while failing to consult the air force before realigning Canada’s NATO policy.

The commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lieutenant General Michael Hood, told the Senate National Security and Defence Committee last month the CF-18 fleet does not have enough planes to be able to fulfill a new government policy that the RCAF would have to meet both NATO and North American air defence commitments simultaneously.

The Hill Times

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