Canada to buy 18 used Australian jets

by Michel COMTE
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Canada to buy used Australia jets while it seeks bids for new fleet

Canada to buy used Australia jets while it seeks bids for new fleet

Ottawa (AFP) - Canada announced Tuesday it would buy 18 used Australian jets instead of new Boeing Super Hornets, signaling limits in its unwavering friendship with its US neighbor.

A little more than a year after saying it would buy 18 Super Hornets for more than $5 billion, and amid trade tensions, Ottawa formally rejected the deal in favor of used planes from Australia.

Senior government and military officials said the Australian F-18 fighter jets will fill an air force interim capability gap while Ottawa holds a competitive procurement process for a new fleet.

"We have received an official offer from the Australian government regarding the sale of 18 jets, and we intend to follow up on this offer," Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough told a press conference.

Consultations with aircraft makers on the new fleet will begin in January, she said, before Ottawa launches the formal bidding in 2019 for 88 new planes.

The winning bidder will be expected to partner with Canadian aerospace firms.

A special clause requiring the successful candidate to also cause "no economic harm" to Canada appears aimed at disqualifying Boeing, which riled Ottawa when it launched a trade complaint against the nation's largest manufacturer Bombardier earlier this year.

Qualtrough insisted that "no firm will be excluded" from the competition.

However, "bidders responsible for harming Canada's economic interest will be at a distinct disadvantage compared to bidders who aren't engaged in detrimental behavior," she added.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals in 2015 scrapped three previous administrations' plans to purchase state-of-the-art, but costly Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets to replace Canada's aging F-18 fleet.

Canada spent two decades helping to develop the stealth fighter with the United States and its allies.

But it is currently the only nation in the partnership not yet committed to buying the F-35s.

Trudeau had proposed picking up 18 new Super Hornets as a stopgap while it reset the competition.

But that deal fell apart after Boeing filed a trade complaint against Bombardier in an effort to keep Bombardier's new CSeries jetliners out of the US market, resulting in 300 percent duties being slapped on the planes.

- Payback for Boeing complaint -

"Attempts by Boeing to put tens of thousands of aerospace workers out of work across Canada is not something we look on positively," Trudeau told reporters in October when he went to Washington to press US President Donald Trump on the issue.

"And I certainly mentioned that this was a block to us purchasing any -- making any military procurements from Boeing."

At the same time, ties with Washington have become strained over Trump's hard line in trade talks, and the targeting of Canadian softwood lumber imports.

Military and procurement experts praised Canada's decision to buy the used fighter jets for a tenth of the cost of the Super Hornets.

They noted the Australian planes would be easily integrated into Canada's existing fleet.

"I don't think the purchase of used Australian fighter jets makes as much sense as expediting the purchase of new jets, but it makes more sense than the previous plan to buy a new fleet of aircraft to use temporarily while running a competition to buy more new aircraft for a full fleet replacement," said Dave Perry, an analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.

The contract for a full fleet of new warplanes will be awarded in 2022, after the next election, with the first deliveries expected in 2025.

Most critics say only the Super Hornet or the F-35 can meet Canada's needs as the US and Canadian air forces must be interoperable under the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan confirmed this to AFP last year.

Airbus, after coming to the rescue of Bombardier in October, has expressed a desire to do more business in Canada and could pitch the Eurofighter Typhoon to replace Canada's F-18s.

"There's some hope among the Europeans that they may be able to get Canada to consider one of their jet fighters," said Richard Shimooka, a senior fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute.

"But that's a pretty outside shot," he said.

Shimooka said hawks in the US Congress "are very upset" with Trudeau for canceling the F-35 purchase.

"But it's not a big thing on the radar of the (US) administration," he added. "They know Canada will buy either the Super Hornet or F-35 in the end."