The two American aerospace firms that want the Canadian government to buy their fighter jets say they did not request an extension on the deadline for bids.
At the same time, defence experts say the decision to grant the extension reflects the bigger challenge facing a government that has repeatedly insisted a competition is the only way to move forward with the $19-billion procurement, despite there being a limited pool of options.
“The government believes it needs to run a competition, but there’re many situations where, in reality, there’s only one or two competitors that can actually meet the needs of the Canadian Forces,” said Richard Shimooka, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and an expert on defence.
“So the government’s put in a bit of a pickle by its rhetoric where it wants to portray that ‘yeah, we’re having a competition or we’re providing value for money and all these kind of important things for Canada’, but in fact knows there’s really only one competitor.”
On Tuesday, the government announcement that the March 30 deadline will be pushed back three months, to June 30 instead.
In a press release on the decision earlier in the week, the government had said this extension was being granted “at the request of industry.”
“Procurements of this magnitude are complex, and submission of a good proposal is important for suppliers and for Canada,” the government said in the press release. “This extension allows eligible suppliers to address recent feedback on their security offers, ensuring that Canada receives competitive proposals that meet its technical, cost and economic benefits requirements.”
Global News has since been told that feedback included specific assessments about whether a firm would be able to meet the Canadian government’s requirements for inter-operability with key allies, including the U.S. and the Five Eyes, and whether allies would be comfortable with them.
Because the government is using a process known as phased bids for the fighter jet procurement, bidders get the chance to address any findings of non-compliance with those requirements before submitting their final proposals.
And because of how closely Canada and the U.S. work together on issues ranging from intelligence sharing, continental defence and others, inter-operability – or the ability for jets to work seamlessly across various areas where Canadian and American systems overlap – is considered key to this contest.
“We’ve got to buy aircraft that can be completely and seamlessly inter-operable with the U.S.,” said Dave Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and an expert on defence procurement.
“They’ve asked the bidders to put forward a proposal on how they’re going to make that work.”
Perry noted that in the past, questions around how aircraft will operate between Canadian and American systems hasn’t been relevant because Canadian fighter jets have always been American.
Now, with foreign bidders like Sweden’s Saab, the onus is on them to demonstrate their jets can actually do the work.
“Saab is the only competitor that is not part of either Five Eyes or Two Eyes and as a result, it would have the greatest amount of work in order to meet the requirements of the Royal Canadian Airforce,” said Shimooka.
“Right off the bat, it requires the greatest amount of work for this.”
While the government wouldn’t say which firm asked for the deadline extension, both Lockheed Martin and Boeing offered statements saying it wasn’t them.
“We did not request the extension,” said Boeing spokesperson Stephanie Townend.
A spokesperson for Lockheed Martin offered a similar response.
“We have not requested an extension of delivery for the FFCP preliminary proposal,” said Amanda Hauck, strategic communications lead for the firm.
A spokesperson for Saab was less clear.
“While Canada’s FFCP competition prohibits bidders from commenting publicly on confidential elements of the RFP process, Saab was prepared, and remains prepared, to submit a bid based on the Government of Canada’s schedule,” said Patrick Palmer, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Saab Canada.
“Saab will continue to finalize its response to all stated requirements of the RFP and can confirm that we will submit a fully compliant response to the Future Fighter Capability Program RFP. We are confident that our offer will provide the best value and best solution for Canada, industry and Canadians for generations to come.”
Global News followed up with a request for Palmer to clarify whether the bid Saab said it was prepared to submit by the March 30 deadline would have been a fully compliant one. The company has not yet clarified its response.
Saab is offering its Gripen fighter jet in the contest while Lockheed Martin is offering its controversial F-35 and Boeing is offering its Super Hornet.
Two other European firms – Airbus and Dassault – dropped out of the contest over the past year-and-a-half, citing security requirements and associated extra costs for the suppliers if chosen.
The competition is complicated though by questions and past concerns about both of the American offerings.
Boeing brought a trade tribunal complaint against the Canadian aerospace firm Bombardier in 2018 which resulted in Bombardier being forced to pay steep duties on imports of its C-Series plane to the United States.
Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said shortly afterward that the government would weigh a company’s “economic behaviour” and that those who had caused economic harm to Canada would be at a disadvantage in the fighter jet competition.
That clause still exists in the criteria being used to assess the projects.
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also promised during the 2015 election campaign not to buy the F-35, the planned procurement of which under the previous Conservative government had been dogged with accusations of hidden costs and sole-sourcing.
Since the launch of the competition, the F-35 has become widely-viewed by military experts as a frontrunner in the contest.
A government source speaking on background insisted the extension will not impact the expected decision date. The result of the contest are due in 2022 with expected delivery of whichever jet is chosen beginning in 2025.