Once again, Ottawa proves to have learned nothing after years of getting military procurement wrong. To win a contract to supply the Canadian Armed Forces with 88 new fighter jets, bidding manufacturers will have to pass a new “economic impact test,” as announced on Tuesday. The details of the test will be determined over the next few months, although Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains has offered a preview: “If there is economic harm to Canada, if there’s an impact on Canadian jobs, if there’s an impact to some of the key sectors in the Canadian economy, you will be at a disadvantage.”
Anyone following the endless Canadian military supply saga knows what that means. The economic impact test has already earned the sobriquet of “the Boeing clause,” referring to the government’s recent dispute with U.S.-based Boeing Co., who requested action against Quebec-based Bombardier Inc. for unfairly subsidizing the cost of 75 new C Series jets ordered by Delta Air Lines this spring. The U.S. Department of Commerce complied in the fall, slapping a 300 per cent tariff against Bombardier. Unless Boeing drops its challenge, its Super Hornets have little chance of taking to the air for Canada.
The government took another shot at Boeing with its decision to buy an interim fleet of used F-18 fighter jets from Australia, instead of new Super Hornets, as previously planned. This raised eyebrows quickly, given the similarity between the used F-18s and the 30-year-old fleet of CF-18s the government is looking to replace. Multiple officials from both governments came forward to assure us that the used planes would be perfectly suitable, since they “know this fleet extremely well” (per Gen. Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defence Staff) and have modifications ready to keep the planes in the air longer.
So perhaps Canada is not getting the “bucket of rusted-out bolts” that Conservative MP Tony Clement described in Question Period on Tuesday. Not that his party has the moral authority to criticize the Liberal government’s handling of this file. Their own mishandling of a purchase of F-35 jets, announced in 2010 and slammed by the Auditor General in 2012, did a better job increasing the useful life of the replacement debate than that of any actual plane.
The government could avoid such snafus if it stopped using the military as an economic development agency for Canada’s best-connected manufacturers. Political and industry interference was built into the Conservatives’ 2015 whole-of-government procurement strategy, which promised “timely” delivery and a “streamlined” purchase process. But the “third-party oversight” this strategy established would be shared between two Cabinet departments and an arm’s-length “Defence Analytics Institute” with four industry executives on its board of directors. Worse, the strategy called for “leveraging our purchases of defence equipment to create jobs and economic growth in Canada” – as if that’s an official mission of the Canadian Armed Forces. This muddled plan appears to have died with the Harper government, only to be replaced with more muddling from the Liberals.
Our military’s two most pressing objectives should be to meet our capability requirements under NATO and NORAD, and to assert sovereignty in the Arctic. Every procurement decision of the Canadian government, now and in the future, should be made with one or both of these goals at top of mind. Yet a generation of efforts at getting new submarines, icebreakers, helicopters, even combat boots have been plagued with delays, overruns, and recalls – everything but getting the best equipment, on the best timeline, at the best price.
If there’s one thing Canada should be getting from Australia, it’s their bipartisan, multigenerational commitment to a few clear and broadly applicable principles of national defence, as the Canadian Global Affairs Institute’s Matthew Fisher noted last February. All decisions on policy, budgeting, and procurement are made with due consideration for self-reliance, working with limited resources and influence, operations closer to home, and contingency planning. Meanwhile, a simple defence White Paper in Canada only lasts as long as the government that drafted it. No wonder a new Canadian government responds to the defensive decisions of the new one by simply hitting the reset button, as the Liberals did with the search for a new fighter jet.
Of course, by the time any government managed to draft those clear and broadly applicable principles, we might be reduced to scrounging spare plane parts from museums.
Photo Credit: Jeff Burney – Loonie Politics