JOHNSON – Is the F-35 fighter jet the right decision for Canada?
By DAVID JOHNSON
SO, THIS WEEK Canada finalized an agreement with the United States and manufacturer Lockheed Martin to purchase 88 F-35 fighter jets, as it seeks to replace the country’s ageing CF-18 fleet.
During a news conference on Monday, Defence Minister Anita Anand said the deal marked the largest investment in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 30 years.
The $19 billion budget includes the cost of infrastructure setup, weapons (a limited initial order) and other related expenses in addition to the price of planes, which are estimated at about $85 million ($114 million Canadian) each. In fighter jet circles, even if it’s a reasonable cost per jet, the total package is very, very pricey.
Anand said maintaining and operating the jets should involve approximately 3,300 jobs and add $317 million ($425 million Canadian) annually to Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) over 25 years.
This puts an end to the painful process Canada has gone through to upgrade from its existing 40-year-old CF-18 fleet. In 2015, Trudeau campaigned on a promise to scrap a plan by Stephen Harper’s government to buy the F-35s.
Harper had initially inked the purchase without any bidding process whatsoever. Trudeau said his Liberal government would launch a bidding process. This purchase is the result of that years long process.
At the end of the day, the Conservative deal in 2010 was $14.7 billion for 66 planes. At the time it became known that this deal would have cost in excess of $25 billion and Harper’s government knew that. In fact, the Parliamentary Budget Office and the Auditor-General at the time pegged the real cost at $30 billion.
Put this down to pre-election attempts to hide the actual cost from voters. Didn’t work.
An important point is that Canada was invited in the late nineties to be a part of the ‘F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Partnership Agreement Program’. Basically, a deal where if your country pays the U.S. annually with some development costs to design and develop the F-35, you will be first in line to buy a fleet at a preferred cost.
To date, the Government of Canada has written the U.S. $541.3 million in cheques. If we had chosen anything other than the F-35, that investment would be gone.
It also looks like this weeks $19 billion for 88 planes was a renegotiated number, and a better deal than the $30billion for 66 planes which was agreed to by the Harper government, but given recent worldwide inflation, and economic realities, don’t be surprised if that increase by the time deployment happens.
Either way, it appears that Harper’s and Peter MacKay’s negotiating skills were analogous to getting fleeced.
Given the rather harsh growing pains the F-35 has gone through in its development process (exploding engines, failed electronics, a broken gatling gun that can’t shoot straight, even cracked airframes), the seven-year gap between the 2015 cancelation and today’s deal seems to have been a prescient thing.
The problem was that after 2015, once we learned more about the F-35 bid competition, we began to ask questions and discover a few shortcomings regarding the F-35.
The big one: The F-35 can’t land or take off on ice or hard pack, hard surface (concrete and blacktop) runways only and its engines are limited with their ambient temperature resilience. Extreme cold is not a place it will remain happy flying in for extended long periods and very cold starts may not go well.
For a country that sees its future dealing with arctic sovereignty, not being able to land and refuel on ice in the far north and keep air power available for close routine and scramble maneuvers is a very real concern. Today the CF-18 Hornet fleet has a long history of providing this service.
Now pilots will have to fly for well over an hour and back to the nearest airfield, lessening their situational response ability and increasing the Air Forces infrastructure costs.
Russia must be quite pleased Canada has chosen this plane.
Another negative: the F-35 uses exclusively the new generation of American armament loadouts. Expensive American armament, will be an ongoing purchasing need for many decades. It is generally considered potentially problematic to tie any regularly needed military supply to just one country.
All hardware: the F-35 plane, any attachments to the F-35 and all armament it will use is specifically manufactured in the U.S., much of it shipped and sold at full retail to its F-35 customers.
A discussion that cycled around the country occasionally during this process was whether or not Canada actually needed a full 5th generation fighter aircraft. There is a short list of what makes a 5th gen fighter, but the main attraction with the F-35 option is its stealth capability. On radar, an F-35 will appear the size of a tennis ball.
Stealth capability means that an Air Force can more quickly and safely attain air superiority in theatre … but that suggests that Canada is interested in attaining air superiority in larger offensive operations.
As a rule, Canada does not operate its military like America. We don’t decide to invade and attack other countries like America has repeatedly shown it is willing to do. Our approach on our own is usually more defensive in nature.
It has been said that we don’t have a real-world use for a full stealth capable aircraft. In fact, regarding arctic sovereignty, you WANT to be seen by Russian or other adversary ships, submarines and airplanes. Its about a ‘presence’.
The other benefit to the F-35 is the interoperability aspects for all involved nations to seamlessly share data with each other, as well as with ground stations and warships in allied operations.
Our pilots will have the data needed to be able to operate in a multi-faceted situation involving multiple countries and many different military disciplines. This benefit must not be overlooked as just tech talk. It literally almost brings an end to friendly fire mistakes, besides obvious offensive benefits.
That said … if Canada had chosen the alternate number one purchase choice, the Saab JAS 39E Gripen as a 4.5 gen fighter, it also has the same ability to link with the very same network on equal footing.
The Swedish Saab JAS 39E Gripen was the only other real option for Canada to consider, once Canada walked away from Boeing, and it had a few very tantalizing benefits.
Canadian Gripens would have been assembled in Canada, and manufacturing of parts would have happened in Canada, and more importantly all of the intellectual property rights become the property of the Canadian federal government. That by itself is significant as that would give Canada sovereign control over its fighter jet.
As well, Saab literally builds a manufacturing complex in your country, gives you the plans and teaches you how to build and repair parts, and gives you the key.
Most pundits find that the announced $317 million ($425 million Canadian) annually to Canada’s GDP over 25 years with the F-35 is an over statement. If the Gripen was chosen, the dollar amount of increased GDP over future decades with that kind of employment and infrastructure would have been astronomical in comparison.
A broken part on the F-35 needs to be removed and shipped to Lockheed Martin where it will be repaired at full profit shop cost to Canada. The repair process can take up to 188 days and during that time, depending on if the part is ‘allowed to be stocked’ in Canada … that airplane is grounded until the repaired part returns. The repair system is monopolised.
Gripen armament loadouts can be purchased on NATO shelves, a simply massive list of potential weapons, available from numerous countries, bypassing the single supply problem completely. Although it is expected to increase over time, today’s list of F-35 armament is about 20% that of what can be attached to the Gripen.
The F-35 seemed to have been purposely designed to ensure that most NATO armaments won’t bolt on directly. The connections to the airframe are proprietary. America doesn’t want customers going elsewhere for missiles.
Oh, and the Saab Gripen will land on ice and hard pack dirt, and cold starts isn’t an issue … it is Swedish, after all, they understand sub arctic needs. It was designed for arctic work.
Soo … all that said, was there ever really any choice?
Probably not. Buying the F-35 was something of a fait accomplis all along, ‘inevitable’ is the word being used.
This is partly because many other key allies have already bought the jet, have placed orders or are planning to: the UK, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Belgium and Singapore. As well there are reported talks between Lockheed Martin and Greece, Spain and Czechoslovakia and Romania.
With a list like that in front of you … it gets kinda hard to look elsewhere, especially if you’re at the front of the line because of your position in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Partnership Agreement Program. You won’t have to wait too long and the price is attractive.
The long-term socio-political cost of everyone climbing in the same sandbox like this, is the monopoly on hardware that the U.S. will hold over a big chunk of the world. That one day might turn around and bite us hard.
We all require the U.S. to continue to play fair and not fall apart for many decades to come. Recent political and cultural experiences that have happened down there, suggest this may be a fair concern.
So it’s a done deal. time will tell if it was a smart decision or not. We don’t need any $19 billion boondoggle.
David Johnson is a Kamloops resident, community volunteer and self described maven of all things Canadian.
Thanks David for the great report. It’s very irresponsible of our purchasers to buy a warm weather and pavement required anything. In 2015 I explained to our conservative candidate who canvased me during that election that our north requires much fuel and reliability to cover the distances involved and a drone can handle those chores well, an F35, zero.
Turkey’s KIZILELMA unmanned combat aircraft made its first flight a month ago and if it can handle the temperatures and lack of pavement we’d be much farther ahead. The Saab JAS 39E Gripen is definitely a winner in many areas, but Finland chose the F35 with the best contract of all the countries involved with the F35. If Canada could match that it may fly better.
Thanks for your comment Bill, I was going to bring up the Finland deal as example, but tried to keep the column word count down.
Finland’s deal for 64 F-35s planes and weapons systems for $9.4 billion dollar, is a heck of a deal, and speaks to a couple things:
– Simply better negotiating skills, Scandinavian countries are well known for their ability to chew down on the details,
– Canada perhaps being jabbed for previous NATO less than 2% GDP military expenditures, by America … who may not feel any compulsion to provide any sales prices to Canada … as their subs are patrolling the arctic as we speak,
– It makes sense for Finland to go F-35 as Norway is getting them, and they can work together on their northern flank, so it makes logistical sense,
– The funny part is neither of them are NATO countries, and Finland has not shown any desire to join up, so its not as if they need to ‘play up to’ the Americans by getting in line to buy in … but they did anyway.
I had to reach out for the Avro Arrow book on the shelf after reading this. That was a fabulous machine…and then American influence reared its ugly head…