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ALEX McCOLL: MacKay ironically lining up against fighter-jet jobs in his own backyard

Peter MacKay's critics say the main reason he should not be Conservative leader is that he is not that conservative.
"When I asked (Peter MacKay) if Saab’s recently announced partnership with IMP to assemble Gripen fighter jets at the Halifax airport altered his opinion that only the Lockheed Martin F-35 should replace the CF-18, MacKay said that it did not — and that he’d purchase the F-35 if he became prime minister," writes Alex McColl. - Stan Behal/Postmedia

ALEX McCOLL

On Tuesday, Peter MacKay hosted a “meet and greet” in Calgary at the popular beer hall Wurst. The venue was filled with Conservative Party members and supporters. The room seemed split between firm backers of MacKay in his bid for the national leadership and fence-sitters who wanted to hear him out before making up their minds. 

Someone mentioned that there were far more people here for MacKay than had attended a Maxime Bernier event in the same beer hall a few years prior — and that Bernier won Calgary by a considerable margin in the last Conservative leadership race. 

In his speech, the former MP from Central Nova spoke about how important it is to have an electable leader who can win majorities from B.C. to Nova Scotia. He then stayed to mingle, pose for photos, and answer questions. 

When I asked if Saab’s recently announced partnership with IMP to assemble Gripen fighter jets at the Halifax airport altered his opinion that only the Lockheed Martin F-35 should replace the CF-18, MacKay said that it did not — and that he’d purchase the F-35 if he became prime minister. 

When I asked if he thought campaigning against a multibillion-dollar investment and hundreds of manufacturing jobs in his own riding would hurt his chances against the Liberal incumbent in the next election, MacKay provided a one-word answer: “No.” 

In a subsequent interview, Sean Fraser, the current Liberal MP for Central Nova, said he was excited by Saab and IMP’s joint announcement of their bid to assemble fighter jets in his constituency. (IMP’s Halifax airport facility lies just within the federal riding’s boundary.)

But Fraser also emphasized his support for the ongoing competition to replace the CF-18: 

“Obviously, the scale of investment would be extraordinarily positive, not only for Central Nova but for the province as a whole. The previous government wanted to sole-source (the F-35). We’ve made the commitment to have a real competition. I would love to see this economic opportunity come to the riding, but it cannot come at the cost of security for the Canadian Armed Forces. Saab has to demonstrate that (the Gripen) is the right plane for the job.” 

When asked what he thought of MacKay dismissing Saab and IMP’s bid out of hand, Fraser said: “If you think your horse can win, then you shouldn’t be afraid of an open and fair contest.” 

Canada’s ongoing $19-billion Future Fighter Capability Project aims to select a replacement for the CF-18 in 2022, with deliveries beginning in 2025. In February, the government extended the deadline for preliminary responses from March 30 to June 30, 2020. 

The three remaining competitors include Saab’s Gripen E, Boeing’s Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s F-35A.  

The Airbus Eurofighter and Dassault Rafale both withdrew from the contest, citing pro-F-35 bias. 

Saab is the only European Union-based supplier still in the contest, the only supplier offering to fully partner with Canadian industry to assemble jets in Canada, and the Gripen is the only jet with a lower operating cost than the CF-18. 

This contrasts starkly with the Texas-made F-35, as the terms of the Joint Strike Fighter partnership exempt Lockheed Martin from delivering full industrial offsets to Canada. Instead, Canadian firms can bid on just over US$10 billion worth of F-35 subcontracts. This work is not guaranteed. Not long after Italy took delivery of its first F-35, the head of its aerospace and defence industry association said that Lockheed Martin “had not honoured promises” and that Italy had only received 44 per cent of the promised offset work. 

Defence scholars Anton Bezglasnyy and Douglas Ross have warned that the high operating cost of the F-35 could make it “the plane that ate the Canadian Navy.” With so many jobs in Nova Scotia on the line, the next leader of the Conservative Party should make his or her defence procurement strategy crystal clear. 

Alex McColl has a master of public policy degree from the University of Calgary, where he wrote his capstone thesis, CF-39 Arrow II: A Swedish Solution to the CF-18 Replacement Problem, on military procurement.

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