Former RCAF commanders repeat call for open fighter competition

Editor’s Note: A group of retired air force commanders submitted an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Feb. 23, asking the government to reconsider its plan to purchase an interim fleet of 18 Boeing Super Hornet fighter jets for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Calling the plan “ill-advised, costly and unnecessary,” the former commanders were themselves the target of a rebuttal from Boeing on Feb. 27, in which the OEM defended its product and said an interim buy is a “cost effective and smart way to ensure the RCAF can meet Canada’s commitments.” In the following letter received by Skies on March 6, the retired commanders reiterate their case for moving directly into an open and fair competition rather than completing a “wasteful” interim acquisition.

Boeing Super Hornet - Boeing Photo
Notwithstanding the merits of any individual fighter aircraft, former air force commanders are calling for the Canadian government to proceed directly to an open competition, saying an interim purchase will be too costly. Boeing Photo
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“This article is a response to an article published recently by your magazine about Canada’s proposed purchase of 18 Super Hornet aircraft. The article described Boeing’s response to the recent open letter to the Prime Minister by several former Commanders of the RCAF who expressed their concerns about this government decision.

If we are to have constructive discussion on this complex issue, we need to understand the situation in Canada. The present government intends to buy 18 fighter aircraft on an interim basis, and then replace them with a competitive process within only a few years. The Canadian government, in part as a response to our letter, has just announced that the bids for the complete fighter replacement will be solicited in 2019, less than two years after finalizing the intended non-competed contract with Boeing. The government rationale for this unusual step is to close a gap in Canada’s fighter capabilities.

We former Air Chiefs do not think that this is a wise use of scarce defence dollars. The Canadian Air Force (and the whole Canadian Defence Department) has for many years been chronically underfunded and undermanned. Our argument is not directed at any aircraft or industry; we simply think that a competitive approach should be pushed faster, and the interim acquisition is wasteful.

Canada currently spends less than one per cent of our GDP on defence. The funds earmarked for the interim buy represent about one third of the total Canadian annual defence budget. Over several decades, Canada has cut its defence spending to the point that every unit is undermanned. The Canadian training system cannot provide enough people to man the existing force, let alone grow it. The transition to any new aircraft will be problematic; to ask any organization to undergo two transitions in such a short period of time is simply unnecessary and wasteful. The fact that the government changed its policy to create this gap is also telling.

A study by defence scientists in Canada concluded that a mixed fleet of fighters would be more expensive and less effective than a single fleet. Since Canada has such a small fighter force, these issues are very real. The present government not only took that study off its website, it also forced those scientists to sign lifetime non-disclosure agreements, an unprecedented step.

We believe that Boeing is understating Canada’s transition costs, but that is exactly why we recommend a competition as soon as possible. We are extremely confident that Canada has excellent experience with the costs of operating and upgrading its existing CF-18 fleet. More than most, Canada understands the implications of operating older aircraft. Even Boeing admits it cannot supply enough spares. We are well aware that older fleets are less available, but the best way to deal with this is to run a competition for a new fighter without delay. Stretching limited resources even further will only aggravate the situation and compromise operational capability.

New aircraft fleets must come with new supply lines, new training systems, new simulators and new techniques. However organized, the increased number of aircraft would still need to be supported with adequate trained personnel. Any new fleet will demand that experienced people be drawn from existing operational units. Notwithstanding the merits of any individual aircraft, this transition requires significant resources. For Canada with its undermanned units, this unplanned transition will actually increase the so-called capability gap, not reduce it. The defence of Canada and North America will simply not be well served by any interim acquisition.

The best solutions are usually the simplest; we recommend moving ahead with a near-term competition and completing a single transition. The Super Hornet is certainly a very capable platform, however, the point of our letter was that the level of effort, disruption and cost to Canada outweigh any limited progress towards eventually filling the gap identified (to increase the total number of aircraft available for missions). We fully endorse the intention of the government to acquire a new fighter fleet in sufficient numbers to defend Canada, but an immediate competition is the best way to do so.”

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