‘Interim’ fighter aircraft purchase
Mar 15, 2017

Stroke of genius or sorry drama?

On 22 November 2016, the Chief of Defence Staff (General Jonathan Vance) and the Ministers of National Defence (Harjit Singh Sajjan) and Public Services and Procurement Canada (Judy Foote) announced the government’s intention to enter into talks with Boeing to acquire eighteen F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet fighter aircraft.

(Photo: Ken Pole)

According to the speaking points, the project is needed to fill a capability gap created by a combination of operational need on the one hand and the lack of serviceable aircraft on the other. The decision included a commitment to procure a new fleet of fighter aircraft five years hence. (Assuming that a request for proposal will be issued in 2019, with 6-12 months needed to evaluate the various bids, delivery of a new fleet would commence three years after that.)  

The announcement caused immediate controversy, with critics arguing that an ‘interim’ fleet would be an unnecessary waste of resources. The government countered with allegations that the previous office-holders had badly bungled the file, counting on the costly but still immature F-35 to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s trusty (but ageing) CF-18s.

With minimal hindsight, one senses that this latest in a series of procurement controversies reflects poorly on everyone – both government and the armed forces.

Although there may be a veneer of strategic calculation in the decision, the government appears to be acting according to purely political calculations – that is, an attempt to reconcile an ill-considered election promise to exclude the F-35 from the race while conducting an open competition. However, the decision to proceed with a stop-gap fleet could potentially create serious repercussions for the RCAF, the Canadian Armed Forces, and the Treasury (not to mention taxpayers).

The military isn’t entirely blameless either. Those who stood up to protest have, perhaps unwittingly, exposed a corrosive culture of insouciance in the senior ranks. The Chief of Defence Staff could have pushed back, but for whatever reason decided not to. Does this indicate a learned weakness on the part of our military leadership?

Capability gap?
The government argues that a gap exists – that available fighters have fallen below what is required to protect domestic/continental airspace and assume overseas obligations simultaneously. This is undoubtedly correct, but the question is, what makes it so intolerable, all of a sudden?
What has changed – either domestically or internationally – that compels the government to plug that gap, and why do so with a small and expensive boutique fleet? If there is indeed a capability gap dictated by our defence obligations, why make such a significant announcement before the promised defence policy review is released? Such important observations are usually a result of policy reviews; they do not precede them. To answer these questions, let us first ask where the identification of a capability gap started.

It is difficult to imagine that the RCAF or the CAF came to this realization on the urgency of filling the capability gap on their own. It is equally hard to imagine that they concocted a ‘solution’ that would create significant logistics and resource complications in the process. For reasons I will articulate in this article, both may be institutionally incapable of doing so.

Aviation technician from 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron directs the pilot of a CF-18 Hornet aircraft. (Photo: Cpl Jean-Roch Chabot, 3 Wing Bagotville).

So where did the ‘new’ requirement originate, and why focus solely on aircraft when the fighter arm faces a potentially debilitating pilot shortage?

We know that the federal Liberals have tied themselves up in knots trying to avoid making a final decision on the next-generation fighter fleet. The government could have announced a competition shortly after taking office – one in which even the F-35 could have participated – and calmed the political waters by claiming that it had fulfilled an election promise not to sole-source a new fighter while and observing the rules of international trade law (such as, competition without prejudice to any potential supplier). Instead, it chose to introduce a new plane into the fleet (with all the logistical, training, and maintenance implications that entails) and punt the rest of the file down the road. Why? Although not made public, the statement of requirements for the new fighter is unlikely to change much, given the march of technology and the strides being made by both allies and potential adversaries in the air combat domain. The Liberals have access to all of the work done by the Fighter Procurement Secretariat established by the Harper Conservatives. And, having consulted (again) with the various manufacturers on what is available, what more could the government possibly hope to learn that would justify a further five-year wait?  

Defence procurement is indeed a political matter, but this looks too much like a matter of seeking purely political advantage at the military’s and taxpayers’ expense. An ill-conceived election promise to exclude a certain aircraft was made by people who were in no position to know all the facts. Perhaps that’s nothing new under the sun, but it doesn’t make it right.

Defence procurement is in bad enough shape without individual projects being turned into political footballs.

Dissension in the (top) ranks?
That said, the uniforms – serving and retired – have not covered themselves in glory either. In his position as Chief of the Defence Staff, General Vance must know that acquiring an interim fleet will cause short-term hardships – not least the need to shoe-horn a multi-billion-dollar acquisition with significant start-up costs into an inelastic budget.

The mere fact that Commander RCAF was not even invited to join the panel that made the announcement was telling. In a subsequent interview Lieutenant-General Michael Hood admitted he had not been consulted on the policy change. If the officer whose service is most affected by the decision was not present as an official booster for said decision, it’s a fair bet that he takes a dim view of it. That he was evidently overruled is not so disturbing – the government can articulate any policy it wants – but does it pass the smell test?

Was DND asked to scour the world to determine if surplus ‘legacy’ Hornets (CF-18s) could be acquired to back-fill the current fleet at a fraction of the price of new aircraft?

In response to an open letter to the PM by retired Air Force Commanders, Boeing quickly stepped up to explain that both the U.S. Navy/Marine Corps and Australia are hanging onto their legacy Hornets at least until their full F-35 fleets have been delivered and are operational. But Kuwait is replacing its entire F-18 C/D fleet with Super Hornets. Was the Emriate approached about its legacy fleet?

The Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet is capable of landing and taking off from an aircraft carrier. (Photo; Boeing)

The Boeing letter further argued that the Super Hornet would not be a burden on the RCAF. “Purchasing legacy Hornets, if they were available, might appear cheaper in the short term but the maintenance costs and required modifications for these jets would be much higher than that of new F/A-18 Super Hornets. Ultimately Canadian taxpayers would see that the idea of acquiring legacy Hornets would be a much more expensive proposition than the generals’ letter claims.”  

This is a bold statement given that neither Boeing nor its prospective client know how long any second-hand F-18s would remain in RCAF service before an entirely new crop of fighters can be procured. It also underestimates the well-deserved reputation of RCAF ground crews in keeping older planes serviceable.

Savings from a newer fleet of Super Hornets might possibly accrue over the longer term, but if the government intends, as it has stated, to run a competition in 2019/2020, a short-term back-fill using legacy aircraft seems eminently sensible. The Liberals came into office promising to heed expert, fact-based advice. Why would the collective experience of retired Air Force Commanders not be given greater standing in this case?   

Sadly, the story doesn’t end there. The implication of what the retirees said about the capability gap is illuminating. Based on their own extensive experience managing shortfalls in capacity, they have disputed the very existence of a capability gap. Put another way, they recognized during their own tenures that they lacked sufficient resources to do NORAD and NATO tasks simultaneously, but they accepted the gap for decades without much resistance. In effect, they became accustomed to playing a ‘shell game’ – moving resources to where they were needed without protesting too strongly that they might need to do both at the same time one day.

Some would call this prudent resource management. Others might call it an abdication of responsibility – a willful failure to impress upon higher authority the strategic bankruptcy of putting the nation in peril by settling for less.

Of course, any defence shortcomings are ultimately the government’s responsibility, but the retirees’ letter strongly suggests that the senior officer corps is (or has been) gripped by one of two things: either an institutional insouciance that prevented it from recognizing critical shortcomings in the nation’s defences and arguing forcefully and consistently for their amelioration; or a paralysis born of despair – an ingrained inability, built up over decades, to believe that anything could be done.

The ‘can-do’ spirit – so laudable in a military setting – has had the perverse effect of dissuading leaders from speaking the awful truth to power.
One can imagine the thought process playing itself out: “Well, we’ve always been short of resources, so there’s really no point in complaining.” If the senior leadership is hard-wired to let capability gaps exist, it becomes institutionally incapable of recognizing its good fortune when a government decides (for whatever reason) to close those gaps. Notwithstanding the very strong operational and force development arguments made against the government’s proposal, the retirees may fairly be accused of sounding the alarm long after the horse has bolted, and this phenomenon is becoming depressingly familiar.

The Canadian army has had no ground-based air defence capability since 2012, and will not see any relief until 2021 at the earliest. Meanwhile, it deploys against technologically-empowered adversaries in the Middle East and Europe.

The Royal Canadian Navy – especially that portion stationed out west – has been forced to gap its afloat replenishment capability entirely, while the area air defence /command-and-control capability has gradually been whittled down; it disappeared completely with the paying off of HMCS Athabaskan on 10 March 2017.

Yet there is no apparent indignation – either from within DND/CAF or from successive governments. All we have is a promise to re-capitalize at some point in the future, although very likely with fewer ships than before. (Indeed, the RCN’s fleet strength has diminished with each passing generation.)

Clearly, defence capability gaps aren’t an issue in our country. So why should the federal government announce one now? We seem to have lived quite happily with them, haven’t we? And if we are willing to do so, one may fairly ask why go through the considerable trouble of re-capitalizing them? Why does the government not let itself off the hook and scale back its defence ambitions accordingly? What does it risk in not doing so? At the same time, if senior officers will not advocate forcefully in front of Senate and House of Commons committees, if they dissemble or prevaricate for fear of offending the government, hasn’t their highest loyalty come into question?

To be fair, it may be that elected officials are acutely embarrassed at having to beg allies to fill gaps in Canada’s defences. It may also be that senior officers did in fact agonize over their predicament but, being military professionals bound by democratic conventions, they could not publicly admit their despair. But if this is indeed the case, it should surprise no one that this collective cry of protest against the interim fighter would make no impression on the political class which is accustomed to hearing that the armed forces will work with whatever resources they are given. Having previously drawn no lines in the sand, the senior military leadership, even when sheltered by the bastion of retirement, is incapable of effective push-back.

The interim fighter purchase is not a stand-alone issue. It should provoke a deeper discussion about defence policy-making, the relationship between government and the military, and their responsibilities to the Canadian public.

– James Fryer is an independent defence analyst based in Toronto.