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Playing politics

Insights from a brief history of Canada’s military procurement processes
Canadian soldiers fire an M-777 howitzer in Afghanistan in 2007.
Keith D. Henning/U.S. Army/Wikimedia

In 1977, the Royal Canadian Air Force began to look for an aircraft to replace the three-decade-old CF-101B Norad interceptor and the CF-104 NATO fighter, whose low-level nuclear strike mission was being phased out. To do so, the government launched the “new fighter aircraft” competition under the direction of the future defence chief, Brigadier-General Paul Manson, then commanding officer of 441 Tactical Fighter Squadron. 

Manson was an energetic leader, outstanding pilot and superb administrator who quickly organized tests. The Aeronautical Engineering Test Establishment was responsible for overseeing the competition and the budget for the purchase was about $2.4 billion to procure between 130 and 150 aircraft, including two place-training aircraft. Five to eight top Canadian fighter pilots and radar operators or navigators flew existing U.S. and European fighters and one plane that was still in development. 

Specifically, the options included: the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, a U.S. Navy swing-wing, twin-engine fighter; the McDonnell Douglas F-15, a new U.S. Air Force twin-engine fighter; the Panavia Tornado, a twin-engine interceptor/ground attack fighter developed by Italy, Britain and Germany; the French Dassault Mirage F1, a single-engine interceptor; the American General Dynamics F-16, a single-engine fighter; and the U.S. Navy’s prospective YF-17, a McDonnell Douglas fighter not yet in production, but eventually to be built as the F/A 18 Hornet. 

The latter—known in Canada as the CF-188 Hornet—was announced winner in 1980, three years after the competition began. The first aircraft arrived in Canada in 1982, destined for decades of outstanding service. 

The CF-188 procurement was not the only large defence purchase done without a hitch. When Canadian troops shifted their role in Afghanistan in 2003 to act as peace enforcers around the capital of Kabul, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin purchased new M-777 howitzers, with a brace of GPS-guided shells, to shore up Canada’s longer-range capabilities. 

In 2009, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government leased the Israeli-built Heron unmanned aerial vehicle under a license agreement with Canadian company MDA with no squabble at all. The Harper government subsequently initiated a purchase of four (later five) Boeing Globemaster III heavy airlifters and, in 2007, leased 20 Leopard II tanks from Germany for service in Afghanistan, as well as 100 refurbished Leopard IIs from the Netherlands.

But in 2010 when the Harper government announced that it planned to purchase 65 Lockheed-Martin F-35 stealth fighters, opposition MPs began seriously questioning the lack of competition for the expenditure. A report by the auditor general on the matter, which considered the still-in-development fighter a completed production aircraft, was released two years later and projected impossibly expensive costs for the purchase. In 2014, the CBC’s The Fifth Estate labelled the aircraft a “turkey.” It was the final nail in the coffin. The plan was killed by the same Harper government. 

This past January, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had sworn Canada would not buy the F-35, decided to do just that—nine years after the original initiative died.

The F-35 situation is somewhat reminiscent of the plan to replace Canada’s Sea King helicopters, which began in 1986. It was killed by Jean Chretien’s Liberal government in 1993 only to be revived two years later. It ultimately dragged on until the replacement Sikorsky CH-148 Cyclone entered service in 2018—some 30 years after the process started.

What can Canadians conclude from these examples? When the country has its back to the wall in an international crisis—emphasis on crisis—federal governments of both political parties can move quickly to outfit the Canadian Armed Forces with equipment that’s needed. 

In the case of the CF-188, the Cold War was the motivating factor, along with the need to assure the U.S. that Canada would do its part to defend North America with the best aircraft available. Even supposedly anti-military Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau knew that. Martin’s government needed no acute tactical thinking to buy M-777 howitzers when Canada pledged to keep the Taliban out of Kabul. And the Harper government acted quickly to acquire Heron drones, new Hercules tactical transports and buy and lease new tanks. 

Too bad it quickly abandoned the F-35 purchase, only to have it re-emerge almost a decade later under Justin Trudeau’s government. The real lesson: when the country’s leaders play politics with the defence procurement process, all Canadians lose in the long run. 


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