Will Canada Dump the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter?

Ottawa's new government could buy F/A-18s instead

Will Canada Dump the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? Will Canada Dump the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter?
Earlier this week, Canada’s Conservative Party was swept out of office and replaced by a new Liberal government led by incoming Prime Minister Justin... Will Canada Dump the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter?

Earlier this week, Canada’s Conservative Party was swept out of office and replaced by a new Liberal government led by incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The rise of a new government means that Ottawa’s defense and foreign policy posture will change.

One immediate casualty could be the Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

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Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had more or less decided to go ahead and purchase 65 of those stealthy single-engine F-35s, but Trudeau ran on a platform that explicitly states that a Liberal government will scrap the F-35 buy.

Instead, a Liberal government would buy a cheaper alternative aircraft while strengthening the Royal Canadian Navy — which is in bad shape.

The F-35 program has been mired by controversy in Canada — mostly over cost. The Conservative government had low-balled initial cost estimates for Canada’s 65 aircraft buy. Ottawa’s initial estimates stated that the jets would cost $9 billion, but other Canadian government reports — including one from the Parliamentary Budget Officer — estimated the price tag to be much higher.

At last report, Canada would be on the hook to pay $45.8 billion for the total cost of ownership for 65 F-35s.

An F-35A takes off from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, March 14, 2014. After getting upgrades, the F-35A is on its way back to Nellis AFB, Nev. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua D. King/ RELEASED)

An F-35A takes off from Hill Air Force Base, Utah. U.S. Air Force photo

 
For the Trudeau government, that’s a cost that is too high for Canada — which does not have a huge defense budget. Nor is there consensus that the F-35 was ever the right aircraft for Canada’s needs. Indeed, many have questioned if a single-engine stealth fighter would be rugged enough to operate in Canada’s vast, undeveloped and nearly unpopulated north.

Airfields are few and far between — and most of those are not exactly the kind of pristine air bases the U.S. Air Force operates out of.

If Canada does ditch the F-35 and opt for a new competition, Boeing’s Super Hornet is the likely beneficiary. While Eurofighter’s Typhoon, Dassault’s Rafale and Saab’s Gripen are all likely to be on offer for a new Canadian tender, Ottawa has never purchased a non-American warplane in recent memory.

Seamless interoperability with U.S. forces is always a paramount concern for the Canadian military.

Boeing has the advantage of being the incumbent. The Canadian air force already operates 77 upgraded CF-18 Hornets — which are rapidly nearing the end of their operational life. But the Canadians are familiar with the Hornet and it has a proven track record of being able to operate in Canada’s unforgiving Artic reaches without any problems. It also has two engines — which is a major plus for Canada.

While the F/A-18E/F is not the same airframe as the original Hornet, the aircraft offers an easy transition to a much more advanced aircraft. Moreover, it is already flown by the U.S. Navy, which gives Ottawa the interoperability it seeks.

However, Trudeau said that whatever follows the F-35 would be subject to an open competition. There is no reason Lockheed couldn’t bid the F-35 again — indeed Canada’s Sea King helicopter replacement fiasco from the early 1990s shows that even a cancelled program can be resurrected if Ottawa so chooses.

Only time will tell if Trudeau will actually terminate the F-35 effort and start anew. It wouldn’t be the first time Ottawa has changed course.

This article originally appeared at The National Interest, where Dave Majumdar is defense editor.

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