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Competition to replace Canada’s fighter jets could take five years, says Defence Minister Sajjan

By Tim Naumetz      

Both Lockheed Martin and Boeing Company, which is providing 18 CF-18 Super Hornets to the Canadian government as an interim solution for the current capability gap, will be permitted to enter the multi-billion-dollar competition for the full fleet replacement.

'We’re going to make sure that we have a fair and open competition, making sure that we pick the right aircraft for Canada,' said Mr. Sajjan. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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An open competition to select a new fighter jet to replace Canada’s entire fleet of aging Boeing CF-18 Hornets could take up to five years to complete—well after the next federal election—according to a timetable disclosed by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

Mr. Sajjan, while responding to questions about The Hill Times’ report this week that Canada’s defence department signed a new “decision memorandum” with the F-35 joint strike fighter office last March, said that Canada’s involvement in the F-35 project will not preclude the U.S. defence giant from putting its F-35 up against other competitors for the multi-billion-dollar Canadian procurement to replace the CF-18 fleet.

Lockheed Martin can still compete for the contract, just as another U.S. aerospace giant, Boeing Company, would also be able to take part in the bidding, despite being in negotiations with the Canadian government for the purchase of 18 of the company’s Super Hornet fighters as a short-term solution to fill the Royal Canadian Air Force’s capability gap, Mr. Sajjan said.

“We get that question of bias,” said Mr. Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.), adding that questions have been raised about both Boeing and Lockheed Martin. “The perception is there, but we are making a decision based on what we need for Canada.”

Mr. Sajjan added that the government is going “through a process that’s going to have a very rigorous method of being able to test,” the aircraft options before making a selection.

“In no way does this create any bias towards any company,” Mr. Sajjan told The Hill Times. “What it shows is that we’re part of the joint strike fighter program, [to] make sure that our Canadian industry benefits from this, and we need an interim fleet based on our needs right now while we decide to replace the entire fleet.”

“I’ve made it very clear to my officials, and our entire team, and our National Defence part of the process, we’re going to make sure that we have a fair and open competition, making sure that we pick the right aircraft for Canada,” Mr. Sajjan added.

Competition timeline

Asked at that point when the competition would begin and when it would end, Mr. Sajjan replied: “For the competition, we’re going to start early in the new year, once the [new] defence policy is released, we have set a timeline of about five years.”

The schedule means a replacement fighter jet would not be determined until after the next federal election, but Mr. Sajjan indicated the timeline could also be shorter.

“If we can move it faster, we can, but I want to make sure that with the timeline that was there, we’re not going to cut any corners,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that we go through a very thorough process. If we can work to find efficiencies, like we have done with other procurement projects, we would to be able for it to go faster as well.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) campaigned last year on the position that Canada would hold a competition to find a new fighter jet replacement, and that a Liberal government would not buy the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter planes. Mr. Trudeau called the F-35 expensive, and said it didn’t suit Canada’s needs.

Each air force version of the F-35 would cost $143.5-million CDN next year at current exchange rates, with combined engine and aircraft costs, according to the latest U.S. Department of Defence report on the program project. Because of economy through larger production runs, the report forecasts that the same version of the plane would cost $129.5-million Canadian by 2021.

Last March, the government quietly issued a “decision memorandum” that renewed the former Conservative government’s involvement in a consortium of nine countries, led by the U.S. and including Canada, which agreed to financially support and take part in the development and production of the F-35 a decade ago, with the option of acquiring the aircraft for their own defence forces.

The former Conservative government just as quietly suspended any final decision on an acquisition in 2014, as the 2015 election year neared in Canada.

Lockheed Martin in 2001 won against Boeing in a U.S. Department of Defence competition to find a new generation stealth fighter plane that would be used by three branches of the American armed services: U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps, and the U.S, Navy.

Canada, later joined by other nations, first joined the project to develop the new fighter jet in 1997.

Mr. Sajjan said the decision memorandum the Department of National Defence provided the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program office in March gives Canadian aerospace firms—who have won $925-million (U.S.) worth of contracts since the project began—the ability to continue taking part in the Lockheed Martin supply chain.

“We’ve stated openly that we’re going to be part of the joint strike fighter program,” Mr. Sajjan said, adding that the involvement “in no way, say that we’re going to be purchasing, but allows our industry to compete, to be part of that. We’ve got a lot of good benefits from that program, so we’re going to be part of this program moving forward, until we decide on replacing our entire fleet.”

While more than 100 Canadian aerospace firms have benefited from the program, aerospace firms and other sectors in every U.S. state but Alaska have won the lion’s share of dominated of F-35 development and production work.

An interactive map on a Lockheed Martin web site for the program indicates Texas, where the Lockheed F-35 production and development plants are located, has benefited from $3.4-trillion in economic impacts since the project began, with 38,900 direct and indirect jobs, and 78 supply locations.

The map shows California has benefited the most among U.S. states, with $10-trillion in economic impacts and 21,770 direct and indirect jobs at 290 supplier locations, including the state’s world famous computer and software industry.

Boeing, in the meantime, points out in web media ads that it and three U.S. aerospace firms taking part in Super Hornet production signed a total $18-billion worth of contracts with Canadian suppliers from 2011 to 2015.

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