OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came out swinging Friday against the U.S. government over its investigation into a trade dispute between U.S. aerospace giant Boeing and Canadian rival Bombardier.
But he also danced around whether the Liberal government has another option if it follows through on its not-so-subtle threat to scrap the planned purchase of 18 Super Hornet fighter jets from Boeing.
The Liberals appeared to link the trade dispute and fighter-jet purchase on Thursday, after the U.S. officials launched an investigation into dumping allegations that Boeing has brought against Bombardier.
Boeing officials alleged in a special hearing that Bombardier sold its CSeries jets to Delta Air Lines at an unfair discount thanks to subsidies from the Canadian government.
Bombardier representatives countered that their planes never competed with Boeing in a sale to Delta and that the U.S. company is a global powerhouse that hasn’t lost any sales to the Canadian firm.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland released a statement after the hearing blasting the investigation, adding the Liberals were “reviewing current military procurement that relates to Boeing.”
Government officials and industry representatives said the planned Super Hornet purchase was the only ongoing military procurement project with Boeing.
Trudeau didn’t mention Boeing or the Super Hornets by name while responding to reporters’ questions at an event in Surrey, B.C., on Friday, but he did have some tough words for the U.S. government.
“We strongly disagree with the actions taken by the U.S. Department of Commerce and we are making that very clearly known,” he said.
“We will be respectful and work constructively with the United States, but we will always be resolute and firm in how we stand up for Canadian interests.”
Yet the threat also cast a fresh light on the government’s plan, announced last November, to sole-source the Super Hornets as a stopgap to supplement Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s.
The government has said more fighter jets are urgently needed to defend North America and meet Canada’s obligation to NORAD until a competition to replace all of the CF-18s can be held in five years.
And it says the Super Hornet is the only plane that can fill that “capability gap,” as its three European competitors aren’t easily compatible with U.S. warplanes, while the F-35 is still in development.
That raises a key question: If not the Super Hornet, then what?
Trudeau sidestepped the issue when asked what other avenues the government has available if it decides to cancel the Super Hornet purchase in retaliation for Boeing’s case against Bombardier.
“We know that we have a responsibility to the men and women of the Canadian Forces (and) to our allies,” the prime minister said.
“But we’re always going to be very thoughtful about standing up for Canadian rights and what is right at the same time.”
Defence experts and industry representatives say based on the government’s past statements, it would appear the Super Hornet is the only option for addressing Canada’s fighter-jet shortage.
But many have questioned whether the Liberals simply invented the “capability gap” to purchase Super Hornets without a competition and keep their election promise not to buy the F-35 stealth fighter.
As a result, there were fresh calls from all sides Friday for an immediate competition to replace the CF-18 fighter fleet, which some have said could be finished in about 12 months.
“There is no capability gap,” said Conservative defence critic James Bezan.
“They should immediately launch an open and fair competition to replace the entire fleet and not take half measures and half steps that will ultimately cost our taxpayers more and put our troops at risk.”
Former chief of defence staff Paul Manson, who previously worked for F-35 maker Lockheed Martin, said the Liberals could address any urgent needs with used variants of the CF-18 from Australia or the U.S.
“But my personal belief is they should swallow their pride and immediately start a competition,” he said. “And then we can get into this next generation of fighters for the Canadian Air Force.”
Carleton University political scientist Stephen Saideman also called for a competition, saying that few in Ottawa believe the military is facing a true shortage of jet fighters.
But he also said, based on the amount of money Boeing stands to lose from the Super Hornet purchase, the U.S. company would back down.
Boeing can expect to make at least $2 billion from the 18 Super Hornets, based on rough estimates, plus whatever else it receives in future sales of fighter jets and other aircraft.