Industry sources expect the Liberal government to decide as early as Tuesday whether to purchase a new fighter jet without a competition.
Federal cabinet ministers are reportedly considering three options for replacing Canada’s CF-18s, one of which they are expected to pick during their weekly closed-door meeting on Parliament Hill.
The options include holding a competition, buying a new warplane without a competition, or purchasing an “interim” aircraft as a stop-gap measure until a future competition.
The government was eyeing the third option in the spring, with the intention of buying Boeing Super Hornets, until an outcry from industry and the opposition forced them back to the drawing board.
But while Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan held consultations with different industry players in the summer, industry sources say the interim option is back as the preferred choice.
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Sajjan’s office refused to comment on Monday, with a spokeswoman saying only that a decision still has not been made.
In the House of Commons, Conservative defence critic James Bezan called for an open competition to replace Canada’s CF-18s.
Purchasing Super Hornets without a competition would “be foolishly putting billions of taxpayer money at risk,” he said.
Sajjan would only say that the government had done “a considerable amount of work” on the file.
“We will make a decision on replacing the fighters and will pick a process that will meet the needs of Canada.”
Anything short of an open competition, which the Liberals promised during last year’s election, is sure to stoke anger from industry players as well as the opposition.
Excluding the F35
Part of the problem for the Liberals is that while they promised an open competition, they also promised not to buy the F-35 stealth fighter.
But the government has been struggling with how to fulfil that promise for fear any attempt to exclude the stealth fighter from a competition would result in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nonetheless made his views of the F-35 known in June, when he panned the stealth fighter as a plane that “does not work and is far from working.”
Recent memos and reports within the U.S. military appear to back up that assessment, with the Pentagon’s top weapons tester warned last month that the aircraft was being rushed too fast through testing.
Stopping the gap
There is precedent for buying Super Hornets on an interim basis. Australia paid $2.5 billion for 24 of the aircraft to replace antiquated F-111 jets until newer F-35s were ready.
However, the idea of Canada needing to follow suit was largely dismissed by a government-appointed expert panel and the military’s research branch as too expensive, since the air force would be operating two types of aircraft, demanding different training, infrastructure and supporting equipment.
Rival companies have argued that purchasing Super Hornets on an “interim” basis would stack the deck in its favour in any future competition.
There are also concerns that Canada would fall behind the rest of its allies — as well as potential foes Russia and China — by purchasing the older Super Hornet rather than the state-of-the-art F-35.
The Liberals have emphasized the need for speed since Sajjan warned in the spring that Canada did not have enough CF-18s to meet its commitments to NATO and North American defence.
Critics, however, accused the Liberals of manufacturing a crisis to justify buying a new fighter jet other than the F-35 stealth fighter without a competition.