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Matt Gurney: The purest example of procurement dysfunction we've ever seen
Having a favourite military purchase fiasco feels like having a favourite gruesome sports injury. And yet ...
Having a favourite Canadian military procurement fiasco feels perverse, in a way. It's like having a favourite gruesome sports injury. Procurement fiascos are bad. We want fewer of them. There's nothing to be celebrated when yet another one barfs all over the national rug. And yet I find myself indulging a bizarre fondness for a mostly overlooked low point in our long, embarrassing journey to this week's re-decision to buy a fleet of F-35 fighter jets for the Royal Canadian Air Force. As bad as the low point was — and it was really bad — it also so perfectly summed up our utterly manifest dysfunction that I've come to almost admire it. It's awful, but it's a pure form of awful. Dysfunctional, but, like, a masterpiece of dysfunction. You couldn’t ask for a better example of what’s wrong with us.
Line contributor Mitch Heimpel summed up the broader picture of Canada's long and embarrassing process toward this week's announcement earlier in the week, much to my relief. That's a ton of background context I can now leave out of this column, and simply encourage you all to read Mitch's piece for the fuller story. Really. Read it. It helps set the table. For the purposes of this column, the important context is the more recent stuff. The Trudeau government was elected in 2015 on an explicit pledge to not buy the F-35 but also to “immediately launch an open and transparent competition” to choose another fighter. That’s a direct quote right from page 70 of their campaign platform.
The F-35 was undeniably controversial when the Liberals made the pledge. In part, that was just politics as usual: the Harper government had supported the plane until it became too controversial and they caved, and the Liberals smelled blood. Plus, it was very expensive, and therefore there was an opening there for the Liberals to make political hay of opposing the jet. The F-35’s notoriously dysfunctional design process and major issues getting it into service — issues still not fully resolved — also lent support to the Liberal position. Still, promising an open competition that would not pick the F-35 was a stupid mistake on the part of the Liberals, and a bizarre one that has never really been explained.
Because the pledge is internally contradictory. You can't hold an "open" competition and exclude one of the frontrunners. There’s just no way to square the circle. This self-inflicted impossibility was a genuinely weird move in a political campaign that was otherwise a smooth, effective and polished effort. It was like no one at Liberal Party HQ bothered to think this particular campaign pledge through all the way to its, um, second step. Having so thoroughly tripped themselves up by issuing an ironclad commitment that was also a paradox, the Liberals ... did nothing.
It was weird to observe. The only logical explanation is that they hoped they'd be out of power before events forced them to make a decision and thereby break at least part of their impossible promise. Running out the clock on their own pledge became the strategy, and they’ve stuck to it for seven years.
It didn't work. Events did force them to make a decision. It's not the recent events I'm talking about, though, or this week's decision to go with the F-35 after all. It's much earlier than that, going back as far as 2016. And the event was simply that we were running out of CF-18s.
It often gets overlooked in all the coverage of the F-35 procurement fiasco, but the reason we need new fighter jets is because our current fighter jets are really old. How old? They began entering service with Canadian squadrons a few weeks before I was born, and I'm no spring chicken (I’ve got the aches and pains to prove it). The Canadian fleet has been whittled down over the years as planes have crashed or been cannibalized for spare parts. Other jets have simply become worn out or outdated, and the air force has been forced to pick which planes to modernize over the years, in ever dwindling numbers, so that modernized equipment can be put into the airframes with the least-serious metal fatigue issues. These are high-performance machines. You can wear them out, and we did.
Very early in Trudeau’s first term, the Liberals seemed to recognize this — the CF-18s were basically a spent force. They’d done all that we could have reasonably asked of them, and more, but there just wasn’t more useful service we could wring out of the planes. If we were a country with a semi-functional procurement system, and/or if we had a political class with even a rudimentary ability to put the needs of the fighting men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces ahead of their own political priorities, that would have been a signal to the Liberals that they had to just bite the bullet and move on with the replacement program. Yes, they’d painted themselves into a corner, but we were literally running out of serviceable planes. Canada is an awfully big country with huge air approaches, and we have treaty obligations to both NORAD and NATO that force us to have some jets to contribute. What we had and what we needed to have were no longer in balance, and it was only going to get worse.
That is, after all, why we were trying to replace jets in the first place, right? It was why the Harper government had tried to replace them before blinking and backing away from what had suddenly become a political liability. The blame for this procurement disaster, and the state of our military more generally, cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the Liberals — the Conservatives own more than their fair share of their mess and should not be left off the book.
But what happened next? That can be laid entirely at the feet of the Liberals, and Justin Trudeau specifically. With our elderly and increasingly obsolete CF-18s wearing out, rather than just accept the political hassle of proceeding with an awkward but necessary replacement program, the Liberals went out and just bought additional elderly, increasingly obsolete and worn out F-18s. Australia’s, to be precise.
That wasn’t the original plan; the Liberals first proposed buying 18 new F-18 SuperHornets, the more advanced American successor to the original F-18. That idea fell through due to a trade spat between Canadian darling Bombardier and Boeing, the SuperHornet manufacturer. This was the point of no return: the Boeing dispute was another opportunity for the Liberals to sigh, pop a few Tums and then just do the right thing and proceed with the full replacement as quickly as possible.
They did not. And this, dear readers, is where this embarrassing chapter of our already pathetic history of military procurement reached maximum absurdity.
With our CF-18 fleet at a state of exhaustion, and Boeing in Trudeau’s dog house, instead of actually replacing our old, exhausted jets with new jets, we just gave the air force enough old, exhausted Australian jets so that the RCAF could cobble enough workable jets and spare parts together to allow the Liberals to further delay any decision on a real replacement program.
When you write a lot about military procurement, as I certainly have, you can’t help but grow a bit (!) jaded and cynical. Even by the standards of my appallingly lowered expectations, though, this was an outrageous decision. As I said above, it’s so bad, so cynical, so crassly political, that it has perversely become something I almost admire, in a twisted way. It’s an almost too-brutal-to-be-believed example of politicians dodging accountability and leadership like Keanu bobbing and weaving out of the path of CGI bullets. Every dollar and hour of time we put into scooping up Australia’s leftover jets — they were unneeded because Australia was competent enough to procure more advanced SuperHornets and, ahem, F-35s — was money and time spent not to improve the readiness and capabilities of the Canadian Armed Forces, but to permit the Liberals to avoid acknowledging they’d made a dumb campaign promise.
Stephen Harper failed the Canadian Armed Forces and Canada generally by not getting the ball rolling on a replacement during his majority term. This was a major failure by the Conservatives that they get all awkward and squirmy about when you bring up, but we should bring it up. The CPC botched this, badly, and should feel shame. Justin Trudeau then repeated that failure, and then took it up a level. In this race to the bottom, where no one looks good, Trudeau “wins” by simple virtue of snapping up used jets — the last of which only arrived last spring! — to buy his government time to do absolutely nothing.
And that’s the rub right there. It would be one thing if the Liberals, back in 2016, had said, well, look, here’s the plane we’re going to actually buy, but in the meantime, we need to snap up some used Aussie birds to flesh out our squadrons until the new jets arrive. That would have made a kind of sense. But the Liberals only did half of that — the part that didn’t embarrass them. The Liberals spent hundreds of millions of dollars — the auditor-general estimates a full billion, actually — to buy time with no plan to actually do anything with that time, until recent events in Europe and increasingly grumpy allies made further delay impossible.
The entire affair is a disgrace, and as Mitch wrote here, a long-running one. There are no good guys to be found. But the award for making it excruciatingly clear just how thoroughly we’re willing to throw Canadian soldiers, sailors and aircrew under the bus if doing right by them is in the least bit politically awkward really does go to Justin Trudeau for his purchase of the Australian F-18s, the billion-dollar move to buy time he had no intention of doing anything with.
In a country where the public knew more about the military, I’d like to think people would have been outraged by this. In the country we actually live in, no one really noticed and Trudeau won two more elections.
Oh well. Sorry, men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force. You deserve better than this.
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