Turmoil in the air

CBC News has published a Thomson-Reuters report which says that “Airbus SE and Boeing Co. may pull out of a bidding process to supply Canada with new fighter jets because they say the contest is unfairly tilted toward Lockheed Martin Corp, two sources with direct knowledge of the situation said on Monday … [and] … The three companies [the other being Saab, from Sweden] competing with Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet have already complained about the way the contest is being run, and expressed concern some of the specifications clearly favour the U.S. firm, industry sources have said in recent weeks.

The report goes on to explain that “Next week the government is due to release the so-called request for proposals — the final list of requirements — for the 88 new planes it wants to buy. The contract is worth between $15 billion and $19 billion and the planes are due to be delivered between 2025 and the early 2030s … [and, it says] … Boeing and Airbus have now formally written to Ottawa expressing concerns about the current requirements, said two sources familiar with the matter who declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the situation … [but] … Pat Finn, the defence ministry’s top official in charge of procurement, confirmed one of the four companies had sent a formal letter but gave no details. The final request for proposals is due out on July 17 and modifications are still being considered, he said … [and, he added] … “We continue to engage all four of them … [and] … We have had some comments (such as) ‘If changes are not made in such a place then we would frankly consider possibly not bidding’ … [and, he added] … We are looking at those very seriously. I can’t say that we will make every change, but as far as we know we continue to have four bidders in the race” … [finally, the report says that] …  Airbus declined to comment …[and] … Boeing did not respond to a request for comment.

Responding, formally, to an RFP (request for proposal) is a laborious and expensive undertaking. The French have, already, withdrawn their Rafale fighter from competition because they felt that they could not compete on too many of the interoperability (with the US) issues. Spending the kind of money required is a business decision that some companies may find difficult if they are convinced that the Canadian government is, somehow, biased towards one solution.

It is not a secret, I think, that many RCAF officers prefer the F-35 to any of the other aircraft. I think that’s understandable, on technical and operational grounds. Because such biases do exist amongst military people, many countries, including Canada, have so-called “arm’s length” procurement agencies that are designed, in part, to negate the impact of service preferences. I believe that the Canadian procurement process is about as “fair” and unbiased as any other but, at some point, the end user’s operational requirements must count for something, maybe for a lot, and it may be that the RCAF’s requirements do favour one aircraft over the others.

Replacing the CF-18s has been controversial ever since Jean Chrétien’s government joined the F-35 project many, many years ago. Some ministers and many generals can share the blame for derailing the project in the Harper years by trying to “lowball” the costs. Justin Trudeau was foolish to say that Canada would not buy the F-35; he politicized the CF-18 replacement process even more.

Now the procurement is in the hands of officials, where it belongs, but, eventually, cabinet ~ either a Conservative or a Liberal cabinet ~ will have to approve the officials’ recommendation because when this amount of money is involved Canadians have a right to expect that elected leaders will carefully consider the officials’ choices and ensure that the national interest is satisfied.

We must all, whatever our political preferences, wish good luck to them all, whatever their political stripe, and hope for good judgment from them all, too.

 

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