Friday, July 16, 2010

Happy untendered $16 billion jet fighter contract day

It's fighter jet day, Canada! On a lazy Friday in July, the Conservatives are set to announce the historic and behemoth sized purchase of 65 fighter jets at a cost of $16 billion in total for the jets and their servicing. A few things to keep in mind as you watch the big showy reveal up there in Ottawa in the hangar...

This announcement is taking place beyond the parliamentary session and taking the form of an untendered contract. Peter MacKay's spokesthingy's latest spin, however, would have you believe this was a competitive process. But that's not the case:
In May, MacKay announced in the Commons that Canada would buy the Joint Strike Fighter. He later backtracked, stating that a competition for a new aircraft would be held. That position, however, was also undercut a day later by the Defence Department, which stated that no decision on whether a competition would be held had yet been made.
This is a sole-sourced contract, despite Conservative confusion and present spin. The calls to have the Conservatives appear before a parliamentary committee to explain this unchecked expenditure are completely appropriate. $16 billion deserves a review.

The New York Times report today also makes a few points that raise some pretty simple questions for us on these jets:
Canada’s air force rarely flies combat missions, arguably making some of the F-35’s advanced features, like radar-evading stealth, seem like frills.

Unlike the twin-engine CF-18, the F-35 has only one engine. Its failure could leave pilots exposed to the harsh Arctic environment as they await rescue. (emphasis added)
That first point is kind of important and getting lost here. It underscores the need to review this purchase, to say the least. So does the second one about the one engine jet model. So our politicians shouldn't be afraid to take on the conventional wisdom machismo the Conservatives are roiling up here and ask hard questions. The onus is on the government to justify this historic, luxurious purchase.

The Times article also suggests that we (along with other allies) may be becoming entwined with an American military project with significant cost overruns. Lockheed Martin is under pressure to reduce the production costs of the jet by the Pentagon. This Conservative announcement today is seen as a boon to the programme. So what is going on? Is this a decision best for Canada's military (and other) needs or is it best for the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin and the U.S.?

We might also hear the Conservatives playing up the point that a Liberal government got Canada into this fighter jet programme initially, so they can inoculate themselves, but...
The F-35s are the product of the Joint Strike Fighter program launched in the 1990s by the United States and eight other nations, including Canada; the Liberal government of the day signed on to the development program, but didn’t commit to buying the planes.
There are lots of questions about the process and the substance here, it's perfectly reasonable for Liberals to say they'd take a hard look at this contract if they form the next government and in the meantime demand explanations be made to Parliament. It would be negligent not to push the government on this $16 billion commitment when the Conservatives are simultaneously musing about cuts to the Veterans Affairs department and looking to slash other parts of government. Conservatives can't have it both ways.

And just remember, as you watch the big "reveal" in that hangar in Ottawa today ("The unveiling will also include a mockup of the F-35 Lightning II"), "Canada’s air force rarely flies combat missions."

Update: See Jeffrey Simpson with big questions on this purchase today as well.