$9B pricetag likely for Canada’s next-generation fighter aircraft

Replacing Canada’s CF-18s with a new generation of fighter aircraft will cost taxpayers around $9 billion, one of the most expensive military equipment purchases ever.

The Conservative government confirmed in 2008 its plans to purchase 65 fighter aircraft and is expected to approve the project some time this year, air force officials say.

The Defence Department would not provide a cost estimate, claiming that to make the figure public would undercut the procurement process for what is being called the next generation fighter.

"To date, no decision has been made by the government of Canada on the choice of a next-generation fighter aircraft or on the procurement approach," added DND spokeswoman Jocelyn Sweet.

But in April, Col. Randy Meiklejohn, of the Directorate of Aerospace Requirements, told a gathering of defence-industry representatives in Ottawa that the cost of the program would be about $9 billion. The air force, he pointed out, plans to have the new aircraft in service starting in 2017.

The figure he used would include not only the 65 aircraft but also spare parts and long-term support.

A number of different fighter aircraft could be considered as a replacement for the CF-18s, but the military has been partial to the U.S.-built Joint Strike Fighter.

The Defence Department’s claim that it cannot release any figures associated with a new aircraft purchase until the project is approved by government appears to contradict its previous position. DND documents obtained through the Access to Information law previously estimated the full cost to replace at least 80 CF-18 fighter aircraft would be $10.5 billion.

Steven Staples, president of the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute, said DND didn’t want to provide the $9-billion figure because it’s worried about a backlash from taxpayers.

"Their plan is to keep this in the backrooms and try to get this deal signed without anyone noticing," said Staples, who has spoken out against what he says are high levels of military spending. "The government wants to spend $9 billion on a stealth fighter when this country has a $50 billion deficit. They should try spending a little more on health care instead."

Staples noted that the cost of the project is creeping up without explanation – at one point the government was going to spend $10.5 billion on 80 fighters; now it is $9 billion for 65. "Who knows what this will end up costing Canadians?" he said.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris, who raised the issue of the next-generation fighters in the House of Commons Thursday, said it is not clear at this point why Canada needs to spend billions on a new fighter jets.

He pointed out that in March, the Canadian Forces received the last of its newly upgraded CF-18 fighters. That project cost $2.6 billion.

An air force study produced last year also noted the need for manned fighter aircraft will decrease starting after 2019 as unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – and other advanced technologies became more common.

But there are those in the defence community who say the new jets are needed.

The Air Force Association of Canada has pointed out that the jets are necessary to support military forces overseas and to protect Canadian sovereignty. Piloted aircraft can’t be fully replaced by drones, the association argues.

Meanwhile, in the Commons Thursday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said a new generation fighter would not only contribute to making sure the military has the right equipment, it would also provide opportunities for domestic aerospace companies.

"There is eye-watering technology now available, and a fifth-generation fighter aircraft will be brought to Canada after the year 2017," he said.

But MacKay also appeared to contradict DND’s claim that no decision had been made on how the procurement program for the new fighter aircraft will be handled when he said there would be an open competition.

MacKay went on to suggest the decision would be between the Joint Strike Fighter and another aircraft he didn’t name.

Alan Williams, a former assistant deputy minister at DND, said he found it strange the department was not being more forthcoming about the new fighter program.

"Whenever you’re going to be spending billions of dollars, you need to involve industry, involve the public and involve Parliament," said Williams. "It makes no sense to hide this."

He noted that when he was with the Defence Department, it was common for equipment project leaders to talk about their programs as well as give details on the rough estimates of project costs – now that isn’t being done. Williams said since he left DND in 2005, there has been a significant increase in secrecy around military-procurement programs.

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