Colin Kenny: Fighter-jet bid process must be transparent

Donald Trump recently made big headlines about how NATO countries are not carrying their fair share of the defence burden — measured at two per cent of GDP. But even U.S. President Barack Obama publicly pointed out, in his address to Parliament no less, that Canada should contribute “its full share to common security.”

Canadians are fond of pretending that underspending on defence goes unnoticed in the U.S. Well, I can tell you that American politicians on both sides of the aisle have told me and many other parliamentarians that they are fed up with Canada and other NATO countries behaving like freeloaders.

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Sometimes they are polite, and diplomatically refer to it as “burden sharing,” but don’t kid yourself for a minute. They clearly understand that they are giving up other domestic programs to protect their freeloading friends and neighbours.

The difference between our current defence spending and what we committed to under NATO illustrates why the U.S. is right to feel annoyed. Reaching the two per cent threshold would require another $19 billion a year. In the past decade alone, this amounts to well over $150 billion in defence spending — not exactly peanuts.

It’s also important to remember that the two per cent of GDP spending commitment was not forced upon us. It was an agreement that we, and every other NATO nation, entered willingly. And part of that spending commitment is allocating one-fifth to capital investment. One good way to do that would be to improve our fighter-aircraft capacity.

Canada needs a new fighter jet to replace the aging CF-18s, which have already undergone one life extension. The reasons we need new aircraft are simple. How we get them is the complicated part.

First and foremost, we need jets to defend our own airspace against enemy aircraft or hijacked airliners. There are too many rogue actors on the international stage who would like to do us harm. Protecting our skies from those threats is a key component of national defence.

As a partner in NORAD, we co-operate with the U.S. only in defending against aircraft attacking North America. But as North Korea’s recent missile tests show, enemy or hijacked aircraft are only a small part of the threat. It’s goofy to think we’ve voluntarily excluded ourselves from ballistic-missile defence.

Second, we need new aircraft not just to protect Canada, but to provide air support for military operations abroad by covering the backs of troops on the ground, as our CF-18s did in the former Yugoslavia in 1997.

The final reason we need a new, effective fleet of fighter jets is that having a robust air force serves as a deterrent to those that seek to do us harm. Often just having a big stick means you’re less likely to have to use it.

Among our generals and military advisers there is a consensus that we need a new fighter-bomber to provide these functions for Canada. But among the chattering classes, there is a free-for-all about not just which aircraft should be purchased, but how we should go about getting one.

I’ve been looking at defence issues for the past 40 years, and I’d be the first to tell you that neither I nor a committee of parliamentarians is qualified to make a decision on which aircraft is best. These are matters best left to the military men and women who will ultimately be responsible for flying the missions and getting home safely.

Fortunately, it appears the political waters have receded, and a sensible approach to this situation is arising. Since the election, the prime minister has issued directives to hold “an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18.”

Furthermore, the questionnaire sent out to the competing defence contractors was, by all accounts, fair and inclusive.

It’s time that we got on with the fighter-jet competition. An open and transparent process is the Canadian way. It’s how we do business with each other and the world. It is also a sign that the needs of our airmen and women will be taken into account and that the ultimate selection will yield the best plane at the best price for Canada.

Colin Kenny is former chairman of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence.

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