Gov’s F-35 strategy flying off course

F-35 2Dogged by controversy, criticism, and endless setbacks in its effort to buy a new fighter aircraft, the Harper government is reportedly hitting the pause button on the process while it ponders whether to proceed with the purchase of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II without a competition (Steven Chase, “Ottawa to put fighter jets on hold,” Globe and Mail, 26 June 2014).

“There will be no decision this month on the next step – whether to hold a competition for a new plane or purchase the F-35 outright – and it is very unlikely anything will be announced even by mid-July,” Chase reported.

“Cabinet hasn’t decided when they will decide, and haven’t determined what they’ll decide,” a senior government official said. “What has been determined is that they will take the necessary time to review the reports, and make a careful, considered decision.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly took the high-profile procurement decision off the agenda of a recent meeting of the cabinet’s priorities and planning committee in order to give ministers greater time to consider all possible options.

According to Chase, the Harper government is angry at the civil service and the Canadian Forces for rushing the decision and pressuring it to buy the F-35 without a competition.

With all this talk of judicious decisionmaking it’s easy to forget that it was the Harper government itself that decided back in 2010 that it would buy the F-35 without a competition.

The government later backed off, slightly, after sustaining a series of hits to its credibility as critics attacked the decision, but it never committed itsself to hold a competition.

The government restarted the procurement process in 2012 following a damning report by the Auditor General.

The concern now is that this “reset” of the procurement process may simply have repeated the key error of the original process, giving serious consideration only to the F-35 option.

Ottawa appeared recently to be on the verge of recommitting itself to the F-35 purchase.

In April, Public Works Minister Diane Finley said that cabinet would use the “next several weeks” to review the information on fighter options that was collected as part of the “reset”. By mid-June, senior officials were whispering quietly about an imminent decision, after the government paraded an independent panel of experts around a news conference to demonstrate that its assessment had been “rigorous and impartial.”

So what prompted this sudden reversal?

According to Chase, “the government was irritated by what it saw as a growing perception among defence lobbyists and foreign governments that it had already selected a plane even before ministers had formally gathered to deliberate.”

Political calculations could also explain the government’s delay, as it considers whether to commit to a purchase before the 2015 federal election.

Photo credit: DND

Tags: Arms industry, Canada, Canadian defence policy, Canadian Forces, Canadian military spending, Defence lobby, Defence policy, Defence spending, F-35, Joint Strike Fighter, Public opinion, Rideau Institute