OTTAWA – “In 2025, the CF-18s will not be able to fly, and it is important that we move very quickly in filling this capability gap.” — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan
Figuring out which fighter jet should replace Canada’s existing fleet of CF-18s is an argument that dates back to the 1990s.
During last year’s federal election, the Liberals promised to back away from Canada’s earlier commitments to the controversial F-35 fighter jet and hold an open competition to choose a new aircraft.
Reports have emerged the now-governing Liberals may instead be moving ahead with hand-picking a plane via a “sole-sourced” contract, though Sajjan insisted this week that no decision has been made.
A prompt decision is required, he said, because without one, the Air Force will soon lack the suitable equipment to meet its obligations — what Sajjan has been referring to all week as a “capability gap.”
The Conservatives, who while in government went to lengths to extend the lifespan of the CF-18s, insist there is no such gap.
So is Sajjan’s statement accurate? Is the procurement debacle surrounding the CF-18s on the verge of rendering the Royal Canadian Air Force incapable of fulfilling its mandate?
Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).
This one earns a rating of some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing. Here’s why.
When they were purchased in the 1980s, the life expectancy of the CF-18s was about 20 years, but a series of upgrades in 2006 and again in 2010 extended that until 2020.
The previous Conservative government had decided the F-35 was the plane to replace them and aimed to have them in Canada beginning in 2016.
But political wrangling and technical issues downed that plan, and prompted the Tories to promise millions to boost the existing fleet’s lifespan again.
That’s why the now opposition Conservatives claim there’s no capability gap — upgrades could keep the planes flying until 2025.
The fleet is slowly going through the first set of upgrades — structural changes that will keep them in the air. But the second phase, the software and technology updates to ensure they can operate alongside planes from other countries, has yet to begin.
The Air Force has two standing commitments with Norad and NATO to have a set number of planes ready to go at all times.
It also needs a specific number of planes for training, to say nothing of the fact they need to be ready to deploy whenever called upon by the government, such as was the case with the recently concluded bombing campaign in Iraq.
The military says it needs 65 planes to meet all of its requirements. They currently have 77.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
If the maximum response to Norad and NATO were required at the same time, and if the fleet’s current size continued to shrink by attrition, it’s theoretically possible the Air Force wouldn’t be able to meet its obligations, said Dave Perry, a defence analyst for the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
The Air Force is currently managing the risk that gap represents, a spokeswoman for minister said in an email.
The commander of the Air Force recently told a House of Commons committee that when present commitments are taken into account, the number of planes they need is 65.
“In the future, would we need more flexibility? Would we need to consider replacing attrition aircraft if we were to lose some?” said Lt.-Gen. Mike Hood.
“Those are good questions to consider and think about, but at the end of the day, defence has to be affordable, and in today’s situation and the extant commitments we have, 65 is the number that we’ve derived.”
So if there are 77 planes right now and the military says they only need 65, the question becomes why the government thinks the capability gap is an urgent problem, Perry said.
“It seems that the current government is interpreting the same situation that the previous government was living with as a problem.”
Fewer planes are likely required in part because new technology allows more training to happen in simulators, he added.
Extending the lifespan of the CF-18s until 2025 doesn’t mean new planes won’t be required until then. There’s a transition period, so the first new plane would have to arrive in 2020.
Alan Williams, a former assistant deputy minister for materiel at the Department of National Defence, said that gives the government ample time to run an open competition.
That could be even faster than sole-sourcing a new plane, Williams said.
When a contract is sole-sourced, all the terms and conditions of the acquisition need to be hammered out after the company is selected. In a competition, the conditions are all laid out first, so anyone that bids knows what’s required — and that takes less time.
“The question isn’t whether or not we have a capability gap, the question is whether or not we need to sole-source because we think there is,” Williams said.
“And that is 100 per cent not true.”
The issue of whether there is in fact a capability gap appears open to interpretation, said both Perry and Williams.
How fast the government needs to move to close it is also a matter of debate, they said.
The Air Force commander himself told the committee there’s time.
“I’m confident that if a decision were taken, certainly in the next five years, we’ll be in a comfortable position changing that aircraft,” Hood said.
For that reason, Sajjan’s statement earns a ranking of some baloney: the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing.
The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:
No baloney — the statement is completely accurate.
A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required.
Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing.
A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth.
Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly stated Lt.-Gen. Mike Hood’s rank.