Liberals need to stop putting politics before our military pilots, right now

A Boeing F-18 Super Hornet performs during its demonstration flight, on the first day of the 47th Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, north of Paris.
A Boeing F-18 Super Hornet performs during its demonstration flight, on the first day of the 47th Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, north of Paris. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere

Canada, it hardly need be said, has a long history of bungled military procurements. The proposed “interim” purchase of new F-18 Super Hornet jets for the Royal Canadian Air Force, though, is still on track to set a new bar. It won’t just turn into a debacle, it’ll start that way.

“Pre-bungled.” “Retroactive dysfunction.” “Permadisaster.” “Borndoggle.” We’ll have to invent some new terms for this.

The problem, as is widely understood and generally recognized by all parties and observers, is that Canada’s existing fighter jet fleet of CF-18s is running out of life. The basic design of the plane is more than 40 years old. Canada’s fleet dates back to the early 1980s. The planes have been upgraded and overhauled over the years, but the airframes are now so old they’ll soon need to be retired before metal fatigue renders them incapable of the aggressive manoeuvres required during combat.

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The clock is ticking, fast. There’s maybe another five years — 10 tops — before we need new jets. Given how long procurements take in this country, that means we need to start finding a replacement immediately. Yesterday, ideally.

But that doesn’t seem to be happening. Indeed, the Liberals seem to have no plan to even proceed in that direction any time soon. Instead, they’ve hatched upon this notion of buying a smaller number of jets to tide us over until we get around to making a full decision later. It’s a neat idea, except — there is literally no point. Canada will need to replace the entire fleet of CF-18s in the immediate future. This is recognized, theoretically, by everyone involved. Inserting an interim process serves no point whatsoever. It just makes it worse.

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The Liberals would politely disagree, and say that the interim process is needed to plug an urgent operational gap in our current strength. Canada doesn’t have enough jets right now, apparently. That’s a totally legitimate argument — I’ve been making it for years. Canada has vast territories to patrol, and obligations to the United States under NORAD, Europe via NATO and to whatever other missions circumstances may compel us to take on. Our fleet is too small to reliably meet all those needs.

But that’s not a reason buy stopgap jets. It’s a reason to accelerate the final purchase. The interim program, which Ottawa has announced would involve obtaining 18 F-18 Super Hornets — similar to but more advanced than our current CF-18s — from American manufacturer Boeing will itself take years and cost billions. Many, many billions.

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This week, the price tag was announced. The 18 jets would cost Canada more than $6 billion. That is an awful lot of money to spend on something that is intended to be temporary. Indeed, that kind of expenditure will sap desperately short military dollars so badly that the eventual full replacement of the CF-18s will undoubtedly be further delayed. Canada will be left with 18 “interim” jets indefinitely as our original CF-18 fleet whittles away to nothing.

It’s nonsense, and though I’ve taken pains to this point to address the proposal on its own military merits, the reality is that this isn’t a military process. It’s a political one. During the last Liberal campaign, they trapped themselves with a ridiculous pair of utterly incompatible promises: a Liberal government would not buy the F-35 jets now entering service with the United States and other allies, but it would also hold an open and fair competition to select our next jet. You can’t have both of those things be true at the same time: any competition that rules out a major contender from the outset is inherently not open or fair. Left with no way to square this circle, the Liberals are punting the competition off to the future with this interim jet nonsense.

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But make no mistake. The interim buy is a bad idea. It’s going to waste time and money our air force doesn’t have. It’s a typical political compromise designed to let the governing party save face, the needs of the military be damned. No doubt it seemed clever when it was thought up in an Ottawa back room, but it makes no sense in the real world.

The only right decision is to proceed immediately with a selection process for our next jet and then buy that jet, in large numbers, immediately. If we expect to have an effective air force in 10 years, we literally have no other choice. Politics is fun, but in the end, facts prevail, and we’ve simply run out of time. Procurement takes forever. We need to start now.

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This is not a laughing matter, but I confess to a fondness for dark humor, and I can’t help but chuckle at another irony here: the interim purchase, an entirely political exercise, has been threatened by another Liberal political manoeuvre. Ottawa is now musing about acquiring second-hand Australian F-18s as the interim jet instead of new Super Hornets from Boeing because Boeing is now in a trade dispute with Bombardier, the company Canadian governments everywhere love to subsidize and protect.

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So now the government is dangling the interim purchase in front of Boeing to pressure it to play nicely with Bombardier. You have to admire the elegance of the karmic justice here: the Liberals looked to Boeing to solve one self-made political problem and found themselves mired in another, and now they’re seeking a third way out of their aircraft procurement mess. Apparently owning their mistake and just getting on with a competition is too much for our leaders to bear.

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So, yes, a rueful chuckle is warranted, but again, it’s not a laughing matter. Canada has a solemn obligation to make sure the pilots we would send into battle are flying the best possible equipment — or at least a plane we’re confident won’t snap in half if it has to turn sharply.

There’s an easy answer here: there’s still time for a fair, open and speedy competition. That competition should — must — include the F-35. After a winner is chosen, buy the damn planes. We’ll see how long it takes for the Liberals to admit publicly what they can’t help but have already realized: the current plan puts politics before our pilots.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.


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