Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
I think I have seen this movie before: Canadian government faces difficult procurement choice and opts to kick the can down the road, past the next election. The only difference seems to be that the Liberal government may buy 18 Boeing Super Hornets to fill the “capability gap” while it takes the government five (five!!!) years to come up with a decision on a replacement program for Canada’s existing fleet of CF-18 fighter jets.
As I am on the road (seems to be often the case that big Canadian defence or foreign policy decisions are made just as I get on a plane), I will just present a few quick reactions while admitting that I am neither an aviation expert nor a big fan of the F-35 stealth fighter (I think the United States made a poor decision long ago to focus on one aircraft, thus limiting options for themselves and their allies):
Making contradictory campaign promises can be so frustrating, eh? No to F-35s but yes to an open competition. This decision tries to address that inherent contradiction and does so poorly.
Buying 18 Super Hornets can easily game the ultimate decision, as Canada will have already invested in maintenance equipment, training for pilots, and other expenses that will make buying more Super Hornets attractive rather than the F-35. Also, the joy of Canadian politics: doing while in power what you criticized the government for doing when out of power. In this case, sole sourcing of equipment.
The capability gap mentioned by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan may or may not be, um, real. If Canada now has 77 CF-18s and previously planned to buy 65 F-35s, is the gap due to 12 or more CF-18s close to the end of their life? Is it due to the five years it will take to make a decision (more on that below)? Which leads to:
If only Canada had a body of politicians who could scrutinize the government’s assertions with all of the necessary information, and if only that body could control its own agenda and had politicians’ interests in doing this. That would be a fully armed and operational defence committee, armed with security clearances and control over its own agenda. But we don’t have that up here, nor is there any inclination to develop one.
Five years? There is simply no reason it would take five years to decide what plane to purchase except to have it take place after the next election. First, the homework has been done – by the Canadians in the previous go-arounds, by the Danes and by the Aussies. Second, even if the government wanted to throw out all existing work and start from scratch, it would not take five years. Maybe one or two max. Oh, and if they made this decision, which is really a decision not to decide, when they came to power a year ago, then by now we should be ready to make a freaking decision. This announcement so powerfully invokes my favourite Canadian song (at least when it comes to songs that capture Canadian defence procurement) — Rush’s Freewill.
Of course, this is all the same song, different government, since the Conservatives made the same non-decision to kick the decision past the election. Now out of power, the Conservatives have matched this bad decision with a truly awful opinion: “Justin Trudeau is making a political decision about what jets to buy our military. Let the military decide,” wrote interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose on Facebook.
Civilian control of the military is a fundamental part of democracy, so no, we are not going to let the generals make the decisions on how to spend billions and billions of dollars on planes or anything else. Of course, what can Ambrose say, since her party butchered this procurement process so badly that it was left to the Liberals to make.
I firmly believe that all democracies have broken defence procurement processes, but they are not all broken in the same way. Canada’s is broken in a specific way: deferring decisions. Canada’s repeated efforts to delay, defer, dodge, duck and delay decisions come with costs – defence inflation tends to be higher than ordinary inflation. Oh, and according to Dan Drezner, the American dollar is only going to get stronger in the years ahead due to Trump-economics.
Delaying is bad. It is a key reason why the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy is likely to produce something under the planned 15 ships (I’d bet under 12 and maybe under 10 at this point).
So, none of this should be very surprising, but it should all still be appalling: the Liberals’ mismanaging of the file that they inherited from the Conservatives, the lousy Conservative response, and the enduring reality that Canada is going to spend more than it has to and get less.