OTTAWA—Opposition MPs are lashing out at the Liberal government’s proposal to buy second-hand Australian jets to bolster Canada’s own fleet of aging fighters, a plan they say that will saddle the air force with a “bucket of bolts.”
The long-running saga to procure new fighters for the Royal Canadian Air Force appears poised to enter another phase next week with the possible announcement that Canada will purchase used Australian F-18s as a stopgap measure as it moves forward with industry consultation for a permanent replacement for the current fighter, the CF-18.
The decision to buy second-hand is a deliberate slap at Boeing and its Super Hornet, a new version of the F-18. Canada had given serious consideration to buying 18 Super Hornets for the RCAF.
But then Boeing filed a trade complaint against rival Bombardier, alleging that the Canadian manufacturer was relying on government subsidies to sell its C-series jets at unfairly low prices. In response, the U.S. government said it would impose a 220-per-cent duty on C-series jet sales.
Even before the announcement of trade levies, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had sternly warned that Canada would retaliate if Boeing continued its trade complaint against Bombardier. “We won’t do business with a company that’s busy trying to sue us and put our aerospace workers out of business,” he said in September.
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Boeing hasn’t backed down and now in a tit-for-tat move seen to punish the American plane maker, the federal government appears ready to buy used fighters flown by the Royal Australian Air Force.
The possible purchase was raised in the Commons Wednesday as Conservative MPs questioned the wisdom of buying second-hand jets.
“Defying all expert advice and financial logic, the Liberals will be buying used, rusted-out aircraft from Australia that date back to the 1980s,” Conservative Tony Clement said.
“Will the government abandoned this ill-advised purchase of a bucket of bolts and get to work now to permanently replace our CF-18s?” he said.
Earlier in the day, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said no decision had been made. “We’re going through the proper analysis to (make) sure that we have the right options so that we can fill this capability gap,” he told reporters.
But air force officials have been giving the Australian fleet a close eye, looking at the structural condition of the aircraft, the remaining life and the need for any modifications. In September Canada submitted a formal expression of interest to Australia, asking the cost for 18 aircraft and parts.
Experts say the purchase of used Australian F-18s, which are almost identical to the aircraft now operated by the RCAF, is the “least bad option.” And they say it will be far cheaper than going with the Super Hornet, which would have required huge investments in spare parts and training for pilots and mechanics.
“Boeing has done us a big favour,” one expert said on background about the trade tiff.
Dave Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the air force already has deep experience operating older model F-18s that will help ease the addition of Australian jets into the Canadian fleet. “We have a much better handle on how to fly these aircraft as well as maintain and do upgrades,” Perry said in an interview Wednesday.
As the same vintage as Canada’s existing CF-18s, reliability may be an issue. But because the purchase will give the air force more fighters in the fleet, its readiness will improve, he said. “It will give us overall, more aircraft to put on the flight line,” Perry said.
Retired Lt.-Gen. André Deschamps, former head of the RCAF, called the Australian option “a good safety net.”
“It’s the Band Aid that gets you into the next decade . . . it helps steady the fleet and rebuild capacity,” he said.
But Deschamps cautioned that the interim plan must be followed quickly by an “aggressive” program to purchase new fighters or Canada risks seeing its decades-old fighters become obsolete.
“Don’t let us get to that stage because then you become almost irrelevant to our defence needs,” he said.