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Canada will wrap fighter jet contract in ‘very short term,’ says minister

Global News 2022-12-18 Rachel Gilmore
An F-35A Lightning II fighter jet practises for an air show appearance in Ottawa, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. © THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld An F-35A Lightning II fighter jet practises for an air show appearance in Ottawa, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019.

After years of delays and deliberation, Canada is set to finalize a contract to replace its aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets in the 'very short term," according to Defence Minister Anita Anand.

The government announced earlier this year it was moving into finalization talks towards procuring Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets, though officials cautioned at the time those talks were not a guarantee that a signed contract would follow.

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Ottawa entering final talks to procure Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets: minister

Anand told The West Block's Mercedes Stephenson in an interview that the process is now close to wrapping up.

"We will be concluding that contract in the very short term and moving to ensure that the assets arrive as soon as possible," she said.

"But in advance of that, we need to make sure we have the pilots trained and we need to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place to house the 88 new future fighters. And so there is long-term planning occurring to make sure that we are ready to accept the new capabilities that we are contracting for."

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The federal government launched the competition to replace its aging fleet of Boeing CF-18 fighter jets in 2017, when the government also said it would buy 25 used jets of the same model from Australia as a bridge toward a longer-term fleet replacement.

But with increased demands on the Canadian military, pressure has continued to mount on the government to speed up procurement in the process that has been underway for more than 20 years.

While the government has been in talks about the F-35 since the late 1990s, the former Conservative government formally announced its intent to buy 65 of the stealth fighter jets in 2010.

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Deliveries at the time were projected to begin in 2016 -- but high costs and concerns about inaccurate budgeting dominated headlines over the subsequent years, with the auditor general in 2012 criticizing the handling of the sole-sourced deal.

By the time of the 2015 federal election, then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau vowed he would not buy the F-35 jets, pledging instead to look into a “more affordable aircraft.”

Despite that promise, the government did not exclude Lockheed Martin from entering the contest for a replacement fleet -- and now, seven years later, Trudeau's government appears to be on the cusp of signing a contract for the fleet they promised not to purchase in 2015.

In addition to the decades of delays Canada has faced in replacing its fighter jet fleet, the Canadian Armed Forces are also struggling to bring in another important resource: recruits.

The military has been plagued by a personnel crisis that has forced Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre to halt non-essential activities and raise questions about the readiness of the armed forces.

Speaking to Stephenson, Anand acknowledged there are "thousands of Canadian Armed Forces that we do need to recruit."

"Recruitment and retention and reconstitution of the Canadian Armed Forces is one of our utmost priorities," she added.

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Anand pledges ‘ambitious’ military culture reform in report to Parliament

The Canadian Forces have been shaken in recent years by a sexual misconduct crisis that touched even the highest ranks, along with wider attention on systemic racism that an external advisory panel to the minister warned earlier this year is "repulsing" new recruits.

The reputational problem has been compounded by concerns about the presence of right-wing extremists in the ranks.

Anand admitted it has not been easy trying to shift the military's culture.

The defence minister tabled what she described as a "roadmap" to reform the ranks this week, following a scathing report from former Supreme Court of Canada justice Louise Arbour into sexual misconduct allegations first brought to light by Global News in February 2021.

However, the plan does not contain clear timelines for fulfilling its promises. When Stephenson pressed Anand on this, the defence minister said she wasn't interested in providing "false deadlines."

"What I am doing in the report is being my prudent self, to make sure that what I am saying to Canadians is what is going to occur, as opposed to giving false deadlines, which I am not confident that we can meet," Anand said.

"But what I am confident about is that this is a different moment in terms of our response to the need for cultural change in the military."

The roadmap comes after a "very long year," Anand added.

"Despite criticism coming from various stakeholders and the media, we need to make sure that we stay on track."

-- with files from Global News' Amanda Connolly

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