Despite the Liberals’ election-time promise to “not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber,” the Justin Trudeau government now says the contentious jet can be considered, along with others, in Canada’s ongoing saga of replacing the military’s aging and ailing fleet of fighter jets.
The Liberals have said the Royal Canadian Air Force’s need for new aircraft is dire, and so are moving ahead with a purchase of 18 Super Hornet jets.
“There are days … where we’ve not been able to meet basic commitments to NORAD and NATO,” John McKay, parliamentary secretary to the defence minister, told The West Block’s Tom Clark.
“The fleet has gone from a size of 138 planes to 77. It’s a 30-year-old fleet.”
At any given time, at least some of that fleet is undergoing repair or maintenance, which can mean the operational and available aircraft are too few, McKay said.
“We are not prepared to run that risk any longer,” he said. To that effect, the government has started the process of purchasing 18 Boeing Super Hornet jets.
McKay would not say how many jets Canada is obligated to have on account of its NATO and NORAD commitments, saying that information is “classified.”
However, a report from National Defence, obtained by The Canadian Press, says NATO places no minimum requirement on Canada in terms of aircraft, and that the only requirement in terms of providing fighter jets is that Canada must protect North America alongside the United States.
The report suggests a maximum of 36 aircraft are required to be operational at any time to help defend North America; anything more goes beyond Canada’s obligations and requirements, the report says.
Critics accuse the Liberals of manufacturing a crisis to avoid opening a competition. They say the air force has enough planes and the decision to buy Hornets now and punt a competition to later is part of a larger Liberal plan to avoid buying the controversial F-35 stealth fighter.
Alongside that Hornet purchase, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced last week that the government will launch an “open and transparent competition” to replace the fleet of CF-18 fighters.
And that competition may just include the jet the Liberals promised they won’t touch.
“In order to make it an open, fair and transparent competition, you have to include all of the airplanes,” McKay said. “In order to run a fair, open and transparent completion, any plane can go into that.”
The Liberals have given a five-year timeline for the competition, following a policy review of the National Defence. That time frame effectively punts the ETA for a revived fleet farther down the line that the previous Conservative government had.
Although the Conservatives’ beleaguered procurement process was unsuccessful, they had said the CF-18s would be off the scene by 2025.
With files from The Canadian Press