By: Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA—The Harper government may have “hit the reset button” on the purchase of F-35s, but planning for the stealth fighter continues — and Canada is facing a series of deadlines that will increase pressure to stick with the program.
Eight Canadian military officers continue to work on the multinational program in the U.S., at both the Pentagon and at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where they fill a variety of technical and planning roles.
An additional 16 military officers and civilians also work on the possible acquisition in Canada, according to a statement from the public works secretariat, which is overseeing the replacement of the air force’s current fleet of CF-18s.
They will remain on the project until the government makes a decision whether to continue with the F-35 purchase, or buy some other fighter jet, the secretariat said.
But the complex multinational ties run deep, and the country is facing is a series of deadlines and important program milestones, all of which increase the pressure on the Conservatives to either stay, or leave the project behind.
As part of the existing deal, “Canada is expected to contribute its share of personnel in support of the effort to co-operatively produce, sustain and upgrade the F-35 (joint strike fighter) over its life,” said an August 2011 memo from the F-35 project office at National Defence.
The document is part of more than 1,120 pages of reports on the stealth fighter released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act. The briefings and slide presentations capture the crucial year of 2011, when the air force was ramping its participation before a scathing auditor general’s report forced the government to reconsider its stalwart support of the program.
Retired air force colonel Paul Maillet, a critic of the program, said the question of what has happened to all of the project’s moving parts since the government reset is crucial.
“If the reset button has been pushed, and we’re going to look at this, maybe the program should be at full stop, and we should either withdraw or limit the activities of program staff down there” in the U.S., Maillet said.
The country signed on to help develop the F-35 in 1997, contributing $332 million to date, including a recent $36 million cheque cut by the Harper government.
The documents paint a detailed portrait of how deeply entwined all nations, particularly Canada, have become in the development and success of the plane.
The country is so involved that Canadians are due to take over chairmanship of a key multinational board at the Pentagon’s Joint Strike Fighter project office in the spring of 2014.
Since the government stepped back late last year and “hit the reset button,” a market evaluation of potential rivals to the Lockheed Martin-built fighter was started. The results are not expected until the fall at the earliest, and that punts the government’s decision down the road, possibly into 2014 and within proximity of the next federal election in fall 2015.
Important decisions on creating the jet’s supply system, software development and weapons all hang in the balance while the Harper government considers its options.
“Canada’s participation in development of the Global Sustainment Solution is essential to ensure that DND’s weapons support requirements are adequately addressed in the development of the F-35 release to service and in-service support processes,” the documents say.
“Failure would leave Canada without a voice at the table at a very important time. Any resultant deficiencies/differences will have to be addressed separately, and at additional costs.”
The air force and the government are working on a tight deadline to replace the CF-18s, which are due to retire in 2020. The original plan, before a scathing auditor general’s report last year forced the government to put the procurement on hold, was to buy a handful of F-35s starting in 2016.
They were to be eased into service as the manufacturer continued to work out the kinks.
Documents show the lead time between ordering a jet and its delivery is four years.
And in order to keep the program on track, “ the first aircraft in 2016, must have procurement expenditure authority to formalize (Joint Strike Fighter) Program Partner Procurement Request by (no later than) Fall 2012,” warned an Aug. 19, 2011 slide deck written by the project management office.