Competitors anxious to know Harper government’s verdict on F-35 program

Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press 0

OTTAWA – One of the would-be bidders to replace Canada’s aging CF-18 jet fighter fleet says it’s anxious to see whether the Harper government will hold a full-blown competition — or stick with the oft-maligned F-35.

The comments from Boeing Co. came Wednesday as Public Works Minister Diane Finley announced the next stage in the overhaul of the military procurement process: a new analytics institute to help inform future decisions.

The arm’s-length institute will provide much needed research on defence industries and capabilities, Finley said.

It’s been more than a year since the Conservatives rebooted the controversial fighter program, launching a market analysis to explore the possibility of alternatives to the F-35 stealth fighter, which has been fraught with delays and cost overruns.

Boeing is one of several aircraft manufacturers asked to brief a panel of experts that has spent months examining the capabilities, limitations and cost of the various competitors.

Brian Beyrouty, the defence giant’s senior manager of international partnerships, said his company answered the questions put to it last summer by the Public Works secretariat overseeing the program.

Boeing is interested in selling the Super Hornet, an updated, more robust version of the CF-18s, which Canada has flown since the 1980s.

Beyrouty said a few follow-up details were provided later in the fall, but since then the company has been waiting for the government’s decision, which could come in the spring.

“We’re very anxious to see how the process is going to deliver as they go through that options analysis,” Beyrouty said Wednesday in an interview.

“I think we’ve provided the information that would provide a compelling story to get to a competition.”

The Harper government paused the planned F-35 purchase following a scathing report by the auditor general which accused National Defence and Public Works of low-balling the stealth fighter’s enormous cost.

A subsequent independent analysis estimated that the radar-evading plane could end up costing taxpayers nearly $44 billion over four decades.

The ensuing damage to the meticulously cultivated Conservative image as careful guardians of the public purse led many in the defence industry to predict a decision on replacement aircraft would be delayed until after the 2015 election.

In the interim, to get a handle on military procurement, the government has moved big-ticket items to the Public Works secretariat, which will — among other things — seek to wed programs with Canadian defence contractors.

Beyrouty said Boeing is keen to see how the secretariat approaches the issue of ancillary benefits — essentially, whether a particular company’s proposal would result in additional economic benefits to Canada — and if it will require firm investment commitments in specific sectors and companies.

Beyrouty said Boeing is keen to see how the secretariat approaches its commitment to leverage defence purchases to the benefit of Canadian industry — specifically, whether it will require firm investment commitments in specific sectors and companies.

Indeed, Boeing has already placed a portion of its worldwide Super Hornet program with Canadian aerospace firms.

It remains an open question whether that would count in Boeing’s favour should there be a open competition.

Defence experts have suggested that transitioning between the CF-18 and the Super Hornet would easier in terms of training, logistics and infrastructure than with any of the other competitors.

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