Trudeau says F-35s are ‘far from working,’ as Liberals, Tories spar over fighter jet strategies
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blasted the F-35 stealth fighter on Tuesday as a plane that “does not work,” while his defence minister refused to say if the Liberals will hold a competition to replace Canada’s aging fighter jets.
Meanwhile, public records show the company behind the Liberals’ preferred fighter jet, the Super Hornet, has held frequent discussions with Liberal officials since January. Those lobbying efforts included talks with senior officials in Trudeau’s office, as well as those of the defence and procurement ministers.
Postmedia, citing multiple sources, reported over the weekend that the Liberal government is intent on buying Super Hornet fighter jets. It’s believed the purchase will be labelled an interim measure to fill what Liberals say is a pending “gap” in Canada’s military capabilities.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said Trudeau “naively” withdrew Canadian fighter jets from Iraq. She asked in French why Canadians should trust the Liberals to choose the best plane for the military “when they don’t even understand the value they bring to combat?”
“Canadians know full well that for 10 years, the Conservatives completely missed the boat when it came to delivering to Canadians and their armed forces the equipment they needed,” Trudeau replied, also in French. “They clung to an aircraft (the F-35) that does not work and is far from working.”
He went on to say the Canadian Armed Forces “cannot deliver on our commitments to NATO and NORAD. That is a problem we inherited, and we will solve.”
Trudeau’s comments were the strongest condemnation of the F-35 since the Liberals won the election. Cabinet ministers had tiptoed around the stealth fighter in recent months, prompting questions over whether the government was still committed to its election promise not to buy the plane.
In response to Trudeau’s comments, Lockheed Martin, the company building the F-35, said about 185 of the planes have been delivered to the U.S. and other countries. The U.S. Marines declared their F-35 fleet operational last year, the company added, while the U.S. Air Force is scheduled to do the same this year.
(The U.S. Air Force’s version of the F-35 is the type that Canada was planning to buy. The U.S. Marines operate a different version.)
Earlier in the day, reporters pressed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan over whether the Liberal government was still planning to hold a competition to replace Canada’s aging CF-18s. Sajjan would say only that new jets are overdue, “and I want to make sure that I have all the right information before we make any decision.”
While the Liberals promised during the election campaign not to buy the F-35, they also pledged to hold an open and transparent competition to replace Canada’s CF-18s.
The government was reportedly struggling with those two promises. The F-35 has emerged as the best option following competitions in several countries, including South Korea, Japan and Denmark. That suggests it could win a fair and open competition in Canada as well. But the government fears any attempt to exclude the F-35 from a competition could result in a lawsuit.
Opposition critics also raised concerns about reports filed with the federal lobbying commissioner, which showed Boeing, which produces the Super Hornet, lobbied government officials about a dozen times between January and April.
That was double the combined number of meetings between officials and Boeing’s competitors, including Lockheed Martin. (The lobbying commissioner’s records currently cover only the first four months of 2016.)
Boeing’s outreach efforts included talking to Trudeau’s former chief of staff and current senior adviser, Cyrus Reporter, as well as other advisers to Trudeau, Sajjan and Public Procurement Minister Judy Foote.
“The Liberals have broken their promise for a fair and transparent competition to replace our CF-18s and are sole-sourcing the Boeing Super Hornet instead,” Conservative defence critic James Bezan said. “Maybe we should not be surprised. Boeing officials have met 10 times since February with senior political staff.”
Sajjan replied that he met the head of Lockheed Martin, Marillyn Hewson, at a defence conference in Singapore last week. “I met with her and sat with her at that table as well,” he said.