Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will shed some light on how the government plans to replace Canada’s aging fighter jets in an address to defence and aerospace industry officials Wednesday.
The much-anticipated update will not include an announcement on what aircraft will replace Canada’s CF-18s, said Sajjan’s spokeswoman, Jordan Owens. The minister will instead lay out what “short-term next steps” the government intends to take on the file.
The Liberals have been under pressure to say something about the replacement plan since reports last month that they were considering buying Boeing Super Hornet fighter jets without a competition.
The government has insisted no decision has been made, but it also says new warplanes are urgently needed to address a “gap” in the air force’s fighter jet capabilities. In particular, the Liberals have said there aren’t enough CF-18s to meet all of Canada’s defence commitments.
Critics, however, have pointed to Royal Canadian Air Force commander Lt.-Gen. Michael Hood’s comments to the Commons defence committee in April as proof the Liberals are manufacturing a crisis.
Hood said the CF-18 fleet should be able to operate through 2025 thanks to a $500-million upgrade ordered by the Conservatives in 2014. Twenty-six out of 77 CF-18s have already undergone structural work to fly through the mid-2020s, and electronic upgrades are planned.
Owens said Sajjan’s speech will provide more detail on the current state of the CF-18 fleet. The minister will also talk to industry representatives about other military procurement projects, many of which are facing delays and other problems.
The Liberals promised during last year’s election that they would hold an open competition to replace the CF-18s. At the same time, they promised not to buy the F-35. This, however, created a potential legal situation if the government was seen to discriminate against the stealth fighter.
The F-35 has previously won competitions in South Korea, Japan and Denmark.
Postmedia reported in June that the government was considering whether to use an exemption in federal procurement laws to buy Super Hornets as an “interim” measure to address the capability gap. That would let it to sole-source the planes without fear of a lawsuit.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in the House of Commons last month that the F-35 “does not work and is far from working.” A few weeks later, he refused to say whether his government remains committed to holding an open competition to replace the CF-18s.
“We are working very, very hard and thoughtfully to ensure that we deliver to our forces the right jets the right way at the right price,” he told reporters at the time. “That’s what Canadians expect of us, and that’s what we are going to be doing.”
The previous Conservative government announced in 2010 that Canada would be buying 65 F-35 stealth fighters without a competition. The Liberals, who at the time were in third place in the House of Commons, were critical of not holding a competition.
Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the U.S. defence giant behind the F-35, have engaged in fierce lobbying and public relations campaigns to convince Canadians and politicians that their fighter jet is best for the country.