Canada’s F-35 Rumour Mill

by Philippe Lagassé

The replacement of Canada’s CF-18s is back in the news. Last week, Murray Brewster reported on a leaked PowerPoint presentation indicating that Canada will acquire four F-35s in 2017. Since this would require swapping with aircraft slated for the United States Air Force, the slide deck indicates that the Canadian government will need to send a letter of intent to the F-35 Program Executive Office, after which the U.S. Congress will be informed by the F-35 Joint Program Office. The deck suggests that Canada will send the letter to the PEO in mid-November and that the JPO will inform Congress at the end of the month.

At the risk of sounding painfully obvious, might I suggest that we won’t know what the government has decided until it officially announces a decision?

Based on this presentation, it looks as if the F-35 will replace the CF-18s, and that this process will begin relatively quickly. Although a future Canadian government could always decide to keep only four F-35s and buy a different fleet of aircraft to replace the vast majority of the CF-18s, doing so would be awkward. Alternatively, a future government could choose to cancel the contract for the four F-35s, though this would come at a cost, both in terms of money and of Canada’s relationship with the United States (with the Pentagon in particular).

So, should we assume that the F-35 is a lock for Canada, absent a prohibitive contract cancellation after the 2015 election? My own view is that it’s still too early to tell.

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This isn’t the first time that a story has fuelled speculation about the CF-18 replacement. Last summer, the independent review panel (of which I was a member) released its statement regarding the options analysis that the RCAF completed as part the fighter procurement reset. (And, yes, it was an actual reset.) Shortly before we released our attestation, and for a few weeks after, rumours circulated that the government would announce a decision to sole source the F-35 during Parliament’s summer break. It didn’t happen.

In the fall, the government announced that it would extend the expected life of the CF-18s to 2025. This led observers to conclude that the government was delaying a decision until after the election. Now with the latest news, we’re back to assuming that the F-35 will be sole sourced any day now. Senior government officials, however, told Brewster that no decision has been made and that the slide deck merely reflects one possible option discussed.

At the risk of sounding painfully obvious, might I suggest that we won’t know what the government has decided until it officially announces a decision?

While the idea that the Conservatives can’t resist the opportunity to secretly acquire the F-35 without Parliament or the public knowing persists amongst Harper-phobes, the government has few incentives to do so. Above all, the government is well aware that this file has caused them a good deal of trouble in the past. They surely know that it would be unwise to give the opposition more F-35 conspiracy fodder going into the 2015 election.

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In addition, the government has promised to release the public version of the option analysis report when a decision is made. Here again, the government could go back on its word and quietly sign a contract without releasing the public report. But since a buy of four F-35s would involve informing Congress, and thus become a matter of public record in short order, the government’s choice to renege on the release of the public report would be pretty evident. This too would provide the opposition parties with fodder going into the election. What the Conservatives would gain by handing their opponents this ammunition remains…unclear…

Events might prove me wrong. The government may very well decide to go ahead with a contract for four F-35s without informing Parliament or releasing the public report on the options analysis. If they did, I would be the first to decry the lack of transparency and respect for the reset plan established in 2012.

Yet, as it stands, I don’t think that’s what will happen. I remain confident (hopeful?) that the government will release the public report and provide a clear explanation of the decision it has made based the evidence summarized in that report.

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