RCAF yet to be ordered to look at aircraft options other than F-35

OTTAWA – More than six months after the auditor general delivered his scathing critique of the F-35 program, the Harper government has yet to direct the air force to look at aircraft other than the contentious stealth fighter.

And the Public Works secretariat overseeing the troubled replacement for the existing CF-18 jet fighter fleet is still attempting to define what the government means when it promised to look at “other options.”

The newly appointed commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force said in an interview with The Canadian Press that he’s assigned a staff officer to work with the secretariat, but a thorough examination of other possible aircraft would require a more detailed study by military planners.

That order has not 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.

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.

“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.”

A senior government official, speaking on background, said the secretariat’s options analysis is almost completed, but wouldn’t say what conclusions have been reached.

The idea of looking at other aircraft “has not been foreclosed,” the source added.

But for critics, such as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, 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.