F-35s don't meet military's requirements, documents show

The federal government didn't follow normal procurement procedures to buy the F-35 fighter jets and the plane fails to meet at least one critical feature the government stipulated must be met, documents viewed by CBC News suggest.

CBC Power & Politics host Evan Solomon reported Monday that the exclusive new evidence reveals for the first time the Canadian military's requirements for the aircraft that are to replace the aging fleet of CF-18s.

Solomon said the statement of operational requirements, a document that has never been made public, outlines what the plane must be able to do in order to be purchased.

It describes specific mandatory characteristics without which the overall operational capability would be "unacceptably diminished."

One of the 28 mandatory requirements listed is for the plane's sensor requirements. The document says the plane must be capable of providing the pilot with 360-degree, out-of-cockpit visual situational awareness in a no-light environment.

"According to the U.S. Department of Defence there are so many problems with this feature that they're actually designing a backup. In other words, the plane can't do it," Solomon reported.

Questions are also being raised about the brief amount of time between when the statement of operational requirements was written and when Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced the purchase.

The document, referred to as "Version 1.0" of the statement of operational requirements for the "next generation fighter capability" was issued on June 1, 2010.

It would normally take one to two years after a statement of operational requirements is issued to hold a competition to find a product and sign a contract with a supplier.

But MacKay appeared on Power & Politics less than two months later, on July 16, 2010, to announce that the government was moving forward with the F-35 purchase.

The government plans to buy 65 planes from Lockheed Martin as part of a joint purchasing program with other countries.

Alan Williams, a former assistant deputy minister at the Department of National Defence and the official who signed the memorandum of understanding in 2002 that brought Canada into the Joint Strike Fighter program, said normal procedures weren't followed.

"Not only is it not normal, but it's a complete hijacking and rigging of the process," he said in an interview on Monday's Power & Politics.

"In 2006, the military and civilians recommended the F-35 to the minister and four years later, they developed their requirements, obviously rigged or wired to ensure that the only jet to meet the requirements would be the one that they recommended four years earlier," Williams said.

But Christopher Alexander, MacKay's parliamentary secretary, told Solomon that the F-35 does meet the requirements, and "that's why it's been selected."

He said it's a developmental project and that "it's not unusual for items that are being procured for the Canadian Forces not to meet every one of the developmental requirements, it's a question of relative choices."

"You take the one that meets most of them," Alexander said.

The F-35 procurement, the costliest military purchase in Canadian history, is the source of ongoing controversy and is the subject of an auditor general's report that is being released next week. The government estimates the entire purchase and associated costs will be between $14 billion and $16 billion.