To date there has been a relative political consensus among the mainstream political parties in the House of Commons on the purchase of new fighter jets.
The Liberals appear unwavering in their commitment to buy new planes, the Conservatives want to fast-track the selection, and the NDP election platform highlights maximizing the economic benefits of this public expenditure.
But complications in this harmony could soon appear.
Earlier this month, POLITICO spoke with three industry insiders with knowledge about the competition between Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Saab for the $19-billion contract to build the warplanes. Two of the insiders believe that the Saab Gripen will be dropped from the competition this fall, perhaps within weeks.
And all three believe a final answer — the choice between the F-35 and the F/A-18 — will be made within five months, likely by March 2022.
So where are the fracture points?
In July 2010, the Harper Conservatives announced that Canada would be buying the F-35. It’s not known if this is the preference of the Conservatives under Erin O’Toole, but they will certainly be prepared to score points if Harper’s decision is vindicated.
In October 2015, the Trudeau Liberals clearly stated in their election platform: “We will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber.” If they now go with the F-35 they will need to counter the Conservative attack on this flip-flop and the 10+ years of delay.
If the Liberals were to choose the F/A-18, they would then need to contend with the Canadian military that has long favoured the F-35 and perhaps even U.S. officials who hold the power of “ultimate certification” of the decision.
And if the NDP want to “ensure maximum industrial benefits and jobs” from the purchase, the arguably leading contender in that matrix — the Saab Gripen that would be built in Canada — could be dropped from the competition within weeks.
A decision in March in favour of the F-35 could also lead to political fireworks over its costs and a spillover of the turmoil brewing in the United Kingdom and the U.S. over the skyrocketing sustainment costs of this fighter jet.
The Royal Air Force has already reduced the number of F-35s it plans to buy because of sustainment costs, while the U.S. Air Force has acknowledged it might have to reduce its planned purchase of these warplanes for the same reason.
If the Liberal government chooses the F-35, they could face similar pressure to reduce their plan to buy 88 fighter jets back to the Conservatives’ original purchase number of 65 fighter jets. Again, uncertainty and the potential for recrimination.
While the $19-billion sticker price and the estimated $76.8-billion overall cost hasn’t raised too many eyebrows during the competition phase, that could well change with a Parliamentary Budget Officer’s report early next year and the signing of the contract.
Given the view that the F-35 is less-suited for Arctic defence (so not the best choice for those who argue fighter jets are essential to stop Russian and Chinese bombers entering our airspace), but rather more geared for bombing missions, questions about the efficacy of militarism — especially in the aftermath of Afghanistan — could also begin to be asked.
These are some of the issues this new minority Parliament will need to contend with.
With the average lifespan of a minority government at about two years (meaning we could see another election in 2024) and the delivery of the first fighter jets not expected until the mid-2020s (so potentially after the next election), there are still a lot of unknowns and difficult terrain for this fighter jet purchase to navigate its way across the finish line.
While buying warplanes did not emerge as a contentious issue in this past election, that relative political peace is likely to be tested in the coming months as the competition process wraps up and the government’s decision faces a renewed scrutiny.
Brent Patterson is a writer and political activist.