OTTAWA – The politics of military procurement preoccupied the federal leaders Monday as they fired rhetorical missiles at each other over the future of Canada’s ill-fated attempt to buy new fighter jets.
Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair both blasted Justin Trudeau for announcing a day earlier he would scrap the multibillion-dollar purchase of 65 F-35 stealth fighters to replace the current aging fleet of CF-18s, and reinvest the savings into the navy.
The Conservative and NDP leaders both said it showed a lack of judgment by the Liberal leader.
The heightened rhetoric was reflective of the high stakes at play with military procurement: it is a political hot potato because it usually represents the government’s biggest capital expenditure of taxpayers’ money.
Asked Monday about what they thought of the Liberal leader’s plan to scrap the F-35, Harper questioned “what planet” Trudeau was living on, while Mulcair said Trudeau was prejudging the public tendering process.
Experts say the F-35 purchase would cost taxpayers about $44 billion over the four-decade lifespan of the Lockheed Martin jets.
Trudeau, however, stood his ground, saying there are other, less expensive, proven options already flying that would meet the requirements to replace the CF-18s.
One of Trudeau’s foreign policy advisers, the retired Lt-Gen. Andrew Leslie who is running as a Liberal candidate in an Ottawa riding, said any of the other aircraft options would cost 15 to 30 per cent less than the F-35.
The savings, he said, would be spent on upgrades for the navy, which he characterized as being in a state of “crisis.”
Leslie is one of the Liberals’ star candidates, and the party activated him Monday as the campaign trail debate focused on military procurement.
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The F-35 saga has been fraught with controversy, plagued by malfunctions and cost overruns. The project is on hold after the auditor general offered a scathing critique of the procurement.
The Harper government has since said it will extend the lifespan of the current CF-18 fleet to 2025 and it’s unclear if and when it intends to continue with the stealth fighter program.
Harper has stopped short of endorsing the F-35 in recent days, but appeared incredulous on Monday that Trudeau would scrap the program, accusing him of living in a “dream world.” He said the domestic economic spinoffs in Canada for the F-35 would be “critical” for the aerospace industry and the manufacturing sector.
“Our aerospace industry has received literally hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts … with literally billions of dollars of possibility down the road,” Harper said.
“The single biggest direct thing the government of Canada does in the manufacturing sector is we do government procurement and particularly we do defence procurement.”
Trudeau maintained that Canada is under no contractual obligation to buy the F-35, acknowledging that the previous Liberal government committed to an international partnership to develop a prototype of the new jet fighter more than a decade ago.
“What we’re seeing now, with costs skyrocketing for a plane that has been plagued with troubles after troubles during development, is that it no longer makes sense, if it ever did, to have a stealth first-strike capacity, fifth-generation fighter,” Trudeau said.
Mulcair said Trudeau was showing a lack of experience in cancelling the F-35 purchase, instead of opting for an open competition between various aircraft makers, calling that “the basic rule of public administration.”
At the same time, the New Democrat leader also criticized Harper for endorsing the project in the first place, while suggesting there are cheaper and better options for the air force.
“Our military needs a new jet. It’s obvious we need a new fighter, but where are we going to get it, and in what timeline?” Mulcair said.
Mulcair also pledged to do more for the country’s military veterans, promising more federal health care support, including $454 million over four years for treatment of post-traumatic stress.