OTTAWA – A statement from National Defence says the head of the air force misspoke when saying the Harper government had yet to direct the air force to look at aircraft other than the contentious F-35 stealth fighter.
The newly appointed commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force said in an interview last week with The Canadian Press that he’s assigned a staff officer to work with a public works agency overseeing the CF-18 replacement program, but a thorough examination of other possible aircraft would require a more detailed study by military planners.
And the order has not yet been given.
“So, I’m waiting to see exactly what is going to be required and we’re going to be supporting whatever kind of information they’d like to have,” said Lt.-Gen. Yvan Blondin.
The promise to look at “other options” was paramount to the government’s response to auditor general Michael Ferguson, who last spring accused National Defence and Public Works of publicly low-balling the cost of the multibillion-dollar program and not following proper procedures.
But in a statement released late Monday, the air force said “work continues on the evaluation of options” mandated by the government and that “information shared with a reporter was incorrect.”
It insisted work is progressing, without addressing the central question of whether other contenders such as the Super Hornet or the Eurofighter were up for consideration.
“The options analysis is a full evaluation of choices, not simply a refresh of the work that was done before,” said the statement. “This detailed evaluation will provide the best available information about the range of choices that could do the job required.”
Yet, when Blondin was asked twice during the interview whether other aircraft had been considered, he replied: “No.”
Industry sources say competing contractors have not been asked to provide information.
Following the auditor general’s report, the government took responsibility for buying the new fighters away from National Defence and gave it to a secretariat established at public works.
The federal government has invested $335 million in developing the F-35 so far, and the Conservatives had been adamant that the multi-role plane was the best choice. The secretariat has attempted to interpret what the next step might be, said Blondin.
“I know there’s some discussion within the secretariat about what exactly does that mean? Are we looking at options in terms of airplanes? Different airplanes and we’re going to compare them? Are we looking at options in terms of time? Space? And if we don’t have an F-35 solution, then we have Plan B? Or are we looking at options in terms of do we participate still in the development of the F-35, or not?” said Blondin.
“So, they’re not sure.”
New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris was startled by the apparent contradictions and described the statement as “bureaucrat-eze for saying they haven’t looked at any other planes.”
He said the government is clearly trying to “bluff its way through the issue.”
The idea of looking at other aircraft “has not been foreclosed,” said another government source.
Earlier, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, said the phrase “looking at other options” is unequivocal and means at the very least a thorough examination of the potential competitors to the Lockheed Martin-built F-35.
“The F-35 is a textbook case of failure to be good public managers,” Mulcair said.
“It’s a simple question of public administration. There are rules and the rules exist because it’s the best way to give the public best bang for their buck.”
The government “never even defined the product we wanted and we decided it was going to be the F-35 and nothing else,” he added.
In its haste to answer the auditor general last spring, the government initially named its Public Works secretariat the “F-35 secretariat,” a slip Mulcair says that indicates the fix is in.
Another government promise coming out of the bombshell report involved providing an independent cost-estimate for the radar-evading jets and its 25 years of follow-on support and maintenance by early June.
That deadline came and went, and the government only hired an outside auditor at the end of August.
Government officials have suggested the public will get a look at the figures before the end of the year.