It can fly at 1.6 times the speed of sound. Its design and materials make it all but invisible to enemy radar, allowing it to carry bombs and missiles into the most heavily defended enemy territory with virtual impunity, while its “sensor fusion” and data-networking enable it to direct older aircraft to lob ordnance from a safer distance. Its all-round sensors, millions of lines of computer code and a helmet straight out of sci-fi let its pilots “look” in any direction – including down through the aircraft’s fuselage – at computer-generated terrain, targets and threats. Its development and construction are supporting thousands of the highest-tech aerospace jobs in participating countries. It can use relatively rough northern runways, and one version can land vertically. In recent months it was used in combat by two countries – approaching undetected and escaping unscathed.
It’s the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Strike Fighter, and it’s the obvious choice for the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF) desperately needed replacement of its 35-year-old CF-18 Hornets. Canada for years has been part of the international F-35 development program. As well as being the planned mainstay of the U.S. Air Force for the next 30 or so years, the F-35 is being eagerly purchased by friendly countries as far-flung as Australia and South Korea, and by NATO allies as small as Norway and, most recently, Belgium. A planned 3,100 F-35s will be built.
But the Trudeau government will have none of it. It has conjured up every conceivable excuse not to equip the RCAF with the F-35, currently the only true, top-tier “5th generation” fighter manufactured in a friendly country (China and Russia have or are working on their own). This matters not, as the Liberal 2015 electoral platform stated, because “The primary mission of our fighter aircraft should remain the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability.” Moreover, a big honking killing machine is incompatible with the government’s renewed commitment to UN peacekeeping and – we’re not making this up – its gender equality objectives. But if the F-35 is ultimately rejected, it could prove deadly for Canada’s dwindling roster of fighter pilots and disastrous for the nation’s defences and future governments’ ability to conduct foreign affairs commensurate with a NATO member of 37 million people.
You can’t win a gunfight with a dull knife
Canada, as is its wont with nearly all military equipment, has allowed its shrinking CF-18 fleet to age into obsolescence (despite some upgrades over the decades). Virtually nobody outside of the most naïve pacifists tries to claim the nation doesn’t need a new fighter. The world remains a dangerous place, and it’s broadly recognized that defence priorities have shifted from terrorism and regional conflicts to the threat posed by the conventional militaries of undemocratic great powers. Two in particular. A belligerent and aggressive Russia and an expansionist, militaristic and free-spending China have nations around the globe increasingly on edge – and bolstering their defences. As tensions rise, NATO has been ramping up exercises and deployments to counter the Russian threat. Even Canada is chipping in, quietly sending five CF-18s to distant Romania. In late October, they intercepted a Russian fighter jet probing near Romania’s airspace.
International aerospace companies have offered several fighter aircraft for Canada to consider. But the choice is more limited than it seems. Solid legacy platforms like the F-15 Eagle and the improved F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, as well as European planes like the Typhoon, Rafale and Gripen, may be highly capable in nearly every respect, especially when upgraded into so-called “4th generation plus” configuration. But all are considered fatally lacking in “survivability” in a high-tech war against a determined enemy with networked air defences, fast, long-range, manoeuvrable anti-aircraft missiles – and its own 5th generation fighters. The latest Russian anti-aircraft systems, for example, don’t just defend the airspace over them, they can reach hundreds of kilometres into neighbouring countries or far out over the ocean, meaning that older, less-sophisticated aircraft are under threat even if they stay well back.
What’s needed, then, is a plane designed end-to-end for radar-evading stealth and equipped with its own array of passive sensors giving its pilot unprecedented awareness. A 5th generation aircraft. There are only two flying among Canada’s allies, of which one, the F-22 Raptor, is long out of production. That leaves the F-35. This seemingly clear choice, however, is muddied by the F-35’s checkered development history, nausea-inducing cost, some innate shortcomings, and enduring questions over its actual capabilities. These have enabled critics and competitors to plausibly argue that it’s the wrong plane for any country, not just Canada.
The choice has been further complicated by Canada’s long habit of transforming what should be predominantly technical questions into tortuous sagas of hand-wringing, political gamesmanship, obsession with economic benefits, and vain attempts to reduce price-tags – all of which drive up ultimate costs. This has been our default behaviour on program after program, from planes to helicopters to tanks to ships. Procurement controversies can even affect federal elections. Canadians of a certain age will recall the bitter debate over the EH-101 naval helicopter in the early 90s, in which the vote-grubbing Liberal cancellation of an allegedly profligate Conservative initiative resulted in the purchase of two variants at a combined cost exceeding the original proposal, plus a $158 million cancellation fee.
A similar imbroglio was virtually foreordained for the F-35. True, Canada’s military has weathered previous defence procurement disasters and somehow ended up with decent equipment – although always too little of it. But this time, the debate is not merely over incremental military hardware advancement and how much of it Canada can afford. The shift to 5th generation fighters is a qualitative change akin to moving from biplanes to monoplanes or propellers to jet engines.
If equipped with a 5th-generation fighter, even in relatively meagre numbers, Canada could continue to play a credible role as a NATO member, U.S. ally and meaningful contributor to global security. Canada’s air force could fight, survive and help win a future war. Without it, Canada will slip not merely to second-rate military status, but to third, fourth or even fifth-rate. Barely even a supporter of its allies. More like a spectator. Since our pilots would be blown out of the sky in almost any environment where the bad guys shoot back, our government would try to keep them home at virtually all costs. That weakness wouldn’t just cripple Canada’s warfighting ability, but severely circumscribe the conduct of our peacetime foreign relations and diplomacy, leaving the country effectively impotent on the world stage.
A hard plane to love
At US$406.1 billion and counting, the F-35 is the most expensive military hardware program in history. And probably the most complex military software ever undertaken, for the plane contains and/or depends on an estimated eight million lines of computer code. Once flying, most of an F-35’s maintenance is not mechanical but digital. Tantalizingly promising and bitterly controversial from the start, the F-35’s development track has used a concept known as “concurrency”. This roughly means getting an imperfect version up and flying early, establishing the global manufacturing supply chain, creating unstoppable momentum so the program becomes too big to fail, and then worrying about making it actually work.
For years, it appeared it might not. The F-35 was first flown in 2006 but was only deployed to real combat squadrons last year. (By contrast, the Second World War’s best plane, the P-51 Mustang, required just 13 months from the moment it was conceived to its first combat mission.) Designed in a tug-of-war among the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, plus the pestering of over a dozen friendly countries, the F-35 perhaps inevitably tries to do too many things at once, so it isn’t outstanding at any one thing (with the notable exception of staying hidden). Its top speed of Mach 1.6, for example, isn’t all that fast by jet fighter standards. Its width, needed to accommodate an ungainly lifting fan for the vertically landing Marine Corps and British Royal Navy variant, makes it slow to roll. That’s a critical part of aerial manoeuvring, making it an inferior dogfighter. As recently as 2015 the F-35 was actually losing mock air-to-air engagements against F-16s, a 43-year-old design.
As for weaponry, its internal bay is large enough to slow the plane down, but can’t carry an adequate payload, leaving it dangerously under-armed. It can carry more under its wings, but then loses stealth. The Marine Corps variant has been photographed carrying external weapons – making critics wonder what the point is to an expensive stealth program. Although its single engine is claimed to be the most powerful fighter engine ever designed, going without a second engine seems risky for use in unforgiving environments with far-flung runways, like the Canadian Arctic. As recently as this year, a U.S. government report listed no fewer than 900 deficiencies.
Still, most major new weapons systems experience development problems, especially breakthrough efforts like the F-35, a generational leap in numerous technologies. But the long, bumpy runway to take-off has helped opponents in Canada to gradually shift the question from, “Do we want this 5th generation plane?” to, “Do we need anything modern at all?”
A much-kicked political football
Acquired beginning in 1982, Canada’s CF-18 Hornets were intended to have a 25-year operational life. Replacement is now set to begin in 2025 when Initial Operating Capability (IOC) of the (still unknown) new aircraft is expected. In 1997, the then-Liberal government joined the U.S.-led Joint Strike Fighter program (the future F-35) as part of the process to replace the CF-18s. As a Tier 3 partner, Canada was privy to the initial competition between Boeing and Lockheed Martin and allowed to participate in the supply chain (but not to help dictate the plane’s capabilities nor demand full industrial “offset” costs, i.e., investments in Canada, as it normally does for large defence purchases). None of this garnered much controversy at the time, and it was widely expected Canada would eventually purchase the aircraft. To date, the Government of Canada has paid approximately $500 million to remain in the program, the last $54 million payment being made only this past May.
In its 2008 defence policy paper, Canada First Defence Strategy, the Harper Conservative government called for 65 “next-generation” fighters at a predicted program cost of a dizzying $9 billion. In 2010, it announced that Canada would purchase 65 F-35s. Although the 5th generation F-22 was still being built and theoretically available, its production line was about to shut down, its cost of nearly US$150 million per plane was unaffordable and, as a nearly pure air superiority fighter (and unmatched in that role), the F-22 was less versatile than what Canada wanted. That left the F-35. Its other competitors are, at best, what is called 4th generation-plus, with some elementary “stealthy” features and advanced radars and sensors, but neither network-infused nor constructed with full stealth materials. Nor were most of those planes ready at the time.
The 2010 announcement triggered the first real controversy over the program. An Auditor General’s report in 2012, concerning what cost metrics were used by the Harper government, further politicized the program and forced a re-set of the CF-18 replacement, leaving it stuck in neutral. Then, during the 2015 election Justin Trudeau declared that a Liberal government would not purchase the F-35. He simultaneously called for an “open and transparent competition” to replace the CF-18, despite having arbitrarily eliminated the main competitor. When announcing the F-35’s disqualification, Trudeau promised the savings – which he assumed were guaranteed – would go to building ships for the Navy.
In June 2016, now-Prime Minister Trudeau said the F-35 “does not work and is far from working.” Because he was far from alone in that assessment, the cancellation was at least superficially defensible. Yet at the same time, the Liberal government suddenly concluded Canada’s fighter fleet was too small and faced an urgent “capability gap”. Canada, it mused, could not meet both NATO and NORAD commitments simultaneously. Strangely, these concurrent obligations were not previously required.
Lieutenant-General Mike Hood, commander of the RCAF, confirmed publicly that this was a political decision made by Cabinet and insisted the RCAF could fulfill all its obligations without a stopgap aircraft for up to five years while a full replacement was properly procured. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan countered that new aircraft were needed immediately, and the government announced it would undertake the sole-source purchase of 18 Boeing F-18 E/F Super Hornets, a pure 4th generation plane for which a “plus” version is now in the works. That bucked the advice of many military experts due to the costs of operating dual fleets. Other potential suppliers were also upset, believing Canada operating Super Hornets would taint the subsequent competition for the full replacement fleet. Thirteen former RCAF commanders signed an open letter imploring the Prime Minister not to purchase Super Hornets. Eighty-eight percent of national security academics, senior military officers from all three branches and Department of National Defence (DND) personnel surveyed by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute said Canada should cancel the Super Hornet purchase.
The Super Hornet buy was inadvertently thwarted by Boeing itself after the company brought an anti-dumping case to the United States Commerce Department against Canadian commercial aerospace manufacturer Bombardier concerning one of its civilian aircraft exports. In retaliation, the Minister of Public Services and Procurement announced that the Future Fighter Capability Project competition would include a clause to deduct points from a company’s bid if it was harming the Canadian economy. When everything was added up, the Liberals had promised they would not buy the F-35, would hold an open and fair competition, and would place Boeing Defense, Space & Security in an adverse position due to actions by Boeing Commercial Airplanes. If these statements held, it meant only European aircraft were viable options for Canada’s new fighter.
The growing procurement chaos created a genuine capability gap, so now Canada is buying 25 used, older-model F-18s from Australia. The first are due in Canada next spring. The total cost has not been disclosed but the Department of National Defence has stated that $500 million is being set aside, including the cost of refits and upgrades. If accurate, the upgrades will be modest indeed.
Media reports about the mismanaged procurement process for Canada’s next fighter aircraft continue to pile up. More recently, there were fears the Liberals would deliberately turn to a European fighter if they didn’t get what they wanted from the NAFTA replacement talks, a threat that has subsided with the tentative USMCA deal. Later this fall, the Auditor General is to issue a report concerning the interim purchase. Considering all that has occurred since the Liberals came to power, it is likely to be just as politically-charged as the 2012 Auditor General’s report which sank the original F-35 purchase. The poor RCAF, it seems, in the near term will end up in the worst of all worlds: flying a bare-bones, used, barely 4th generation aircraft that not even Australia wants anymore.
Procurement of diversity and inclusion
Presumably, the country will buy new planes eventually, chosen by the government of whichever party is in power. Today, despite their dispute with Boeing, it still seems the Liberals favour the newer Super Hornet, and Conservatives the F-35 (although official CPC policy is to cancel the interim buy and hold an immediate open competition). Part of the appeal of the Super Hornet for the Liberals may be that it would fall under the longstanding Canadian offset program, which forces suppliers of military purchases exceeding $100 million to reinvest 100 percent of the contract value back into Canadian content of some form. This year the Liberals broadened the program to include key industrial capabilities as well as gender and diversity elements. Investment in those named areas yields multiplying value for the defence supplier, i.e., allows a lower level of actual reinvestment. Evidently in the Trudeau 2.0 era, even defence procurement isn’t immune to postmodern identity politics.
The F-35 program the Liberal government first joined, however, stipulates that purchasing governments not demand full offsets. It instead uses a “best value” method of industrial participation in which winning companies can take part in the F-35’s entire global supply chain. Canadian companies have been relatively successful. As of October 2017, according to this report, Lockheed Martin has contracted over US$1 billion to Canadian companies. While lower in dollar terms than a full offset program, Canadian companies won those contracts competitively (rather than being handed them for political reasons) and many of them were in the very high-tech fields of the type governments claim to favour. For every F-35 currently produced – the latest price is US$89 million – US$2.6 million is Canadian content, according to the above-linked report. Not bad, considering we haven’t even bought any F-35s yet.
At that rate of investment, were all 3,100 planned aircraft produced, US$11.4 billion would be contracted to Canadian companies – which is actually more than Canada’s original F-35 program cost of $9 billion. If Canada ultimately rejects the F-35, however, it’s unlikely Canadian companies will continue to win contracts. Instead of supplying the world’s most advanced combat aircraft with bleeding-edge technology, they’ll be working to keep 40-year-old used rejects from other countries aloft until, perhaps, another aircraft is purchased.
A bird in hand…
One plausible argument against the F-35 has been that Canada should push for a twin-engined fighter that has a longer range, can carry more ordnance, and is more reliable in a huge country with few runways. That could mean buying a 4th generation plus version of the F-15 Eagle, lobbying to restart the F-22 Raptor production line, or waiting for a hybrid F-35/F-22 that Lockheed Martin has offered Japan. Rumours of an F-22 restart also resurface from time to time – although this was largely nixed by a 2017 Pentagon study concluding the costs would be prohibitive.
Another option would be a dual fleet that reduces costs through the purchase of a bare-minimum 30 or so F-35s plus a larger number of 4th-generation-plus aircraft that would back up the pricey F-35s and reduce their flying hours by taking on mundane missions. That is the route chosen by Australia. It will use the F-35 as its stealthy “tip of the spear”, supported by Super Hornets acting as networked missile racks and bomb trucks. The latter plane is also well-suited for low-threat environments where the enemy is poorly equipped to shoot back, such as bombing ISIS, or for diplomatic “presence” exercises that can wear out expensive planes as they are essentially flying around for show.
This argument may lose traction, however, as the cost to operate the F-35 is falling through efficiencies and economies of scale. As of 2017, it costs about US$12,000 per hour to operate an F-35, while this 2016 Pentagon report indicates the Super Hornet’s costs are US$11,000 per hour. In addition, dual fleets are expensive from training and maintenance standpoints, and it seems unlikely any Canadian government would take that route (Australia, by contrast, is replacing two old aircraft types with two new ones). A more forward-looking option would be broadening the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems program to include drones that could go on real combat missions in place of a manned bomb truck. The U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program was originally intended to do this, though it was scaled back to more modest roles.
What about buying European? The above options largely depend on some kind of 5th generation aircraft. No current European option is 5th generation – but all major European countries are planning to leave their 4th generation aircraft behind. In the UK, the Eurofighter (Typhoon) will be replaced by the 5th generation Tempest, and in Germany and France by a jointly developed 6th generation fighter, which will also replace France’s Rafale. It would be retrograde for Canada to purchase a European plane destined for phase-out – not least because it will make many spare parts expensive and hard to find.
And, for all the criticism levelled against it, the F-35 keeps doing better and better. It’s the most advanced weapon in history, with unprecedented sensor fusion, stealth, a helmet that can see through the floor, an unparalleled electronic warfare suite and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. It’s proving a decent dogfighter as pilots learn how to fly it, and after Lockheed Martin tweaked its software and design. In its 2017 debut at the U.S.’s largest air warfare exercise, Red Flag, the F-35 achieved a 20:1 kill ratio. Its costs are coming down. Single-engine fighters have been flown in the Arctic before. Norway will land the F-35 on rough, Arctic runways just as Canada would. Another advantage lies in its very ubiquity; parts and maintenance expertise will be available for decades.
Most persuasive of all, the F-35 is being flown for real around the world. Royal Norwegian Air Force pilots have lauded it, saying it enables them to outmanoeuvre and face down Russian provocations. Recently, the Norwegians conducted joint exercises with U.S. F-22s. Royal Navy pilots are now practising with their first four F-35Bs on Britain’s new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth. The U.S. Marines are operating the F-35B from helicopter carriers in the Horn of Africa, reporting an immense leap in capability from their old AV-8B Harrier “jump jets”. And, although the plane recently suffered its first crash, that actually underscored the F-35’s overall reliability, since newly developed aircraft typically fall out of the sky in numbers.
The F-35 is even combat-proven. In May, Israel penetrated Syria’s Russian-supplied air defences and struck targets using the F-35A, the version Canada would get. In late September, the Marine Corps announced that an F-35B conducted an airstrike against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
So why are the Liberals rejecting the F-35?
Prime Minister Trudeau can no longer say the F-35 “is far from working.” It’s the future of air combat in the Western Alliance and among friendly nations around the globe. Without the F-35, a country is purchasing inherently outdated equipment or would need to wait a decade or more for a viable European option.
A cynic might say Liberal hostility to the F-35 is not only political, but ideological. Al Stephenson, a retired fighter pilot and Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, recently noted that when Justin Trudeau famously derided the Conservatives for “whipping out” their CF-18s, he was attempting to extend his feminist credentials into defence policy by creating a narrative in which combat is masculine, peacekeeping feminine. That argument may seem too “meta”, but the Prime Minister’s extravagant feminism reportedly dictates policy and strategy in his office. The terminology around stealth aircraft, such as “penetrating” enemy air defences, may be offensive to hyper-sensitive feminist ears.
Far more seriously, the purchase of substandard aircraft could enable future Canadian government to say “sorry, but no” when the U.S. calls for allied military support. During the second Gulf War, Prime Minister Jean Chretien was put in a bind when President George W. Bush asked Canada to join the Coalition of the Willing. The Conservatives vocally demanded we join, although public opinion was against going to war without explicit UN backing. Chretien stayed out, but not because Canada lacked resources, and it hurt relations with Washington even if winning props at home.
Canada has long argued that it makes up for low defence spending by always “showing up” when its allies need it. The Liberals’ strong philosophical attachment to a globally-focused Canada, however, is based more on a mythical peacekeeping role, foreign aid and multilateral institutions than a robust national defence and the willingness to use our military in shooting wars. The current Liberal government’s defence policy paper, Strong, Secure, Engaged, issued in June 2017, lacked a foreign policy review, a threat assessment, or a list of the foreign policy goals our armed forces will be asked to achieve. Instead, it focused on people, diversity goals and, to its credit, stable accounting methods for capital purchases.
The alleged centrality of peacekeeping, however often it may be repeated by the Liberals and friendly news media, is more myth than fact. Historically, Canada has almost always been willing to fight when needed, and indeed contributed meaningfully to winning both world wars. The Harper Conservative government worked hard to revive Canadians’ awareness of this tradition, and was unwavering in its prosecution of the long and costly war in Afghanistan.
But if Canada couldn’t deploy, no one would ask. And, indeed, without the F-35, Canada would be unable to play any sizeable role in international air combat operations. A 5th generation fighter means more than having the latest technology and highest capability. It also means having an air force that’s interoperable with U.S., NATO and other international allies, which is virtually life-and-death for any smaller air force. In an international confrontation, being part of the opening strikes is one way of showing commitment. The West has chosen to fight numerous modern-day conflicts, from the Balkans to the first Gulf War to Libya, primarily as air campaigns. Even Trudeau himself, when pushed by President Trump over defence spending, said Canada has always been present when America asked. But without the F-35, that could become a thing of the past.
No fighters, no security, no credibility
Today, Canada’s army is woefully shrunken and under-equipped and the Royal Canadian Navy will be doing without even a single current-generation warship until at least the mid-2020s. If aircraft procurement brings about a similar result for the air force – whether through neglect, incompetence or malign intent – future governments will be militarily impotent and face only bad choices.
Stephenson argues that airpower is one of the most politically-useful and versatile tools available to a nation. It can be used to reassure allies, defend the country’s borders, deter aggressive actions, protect civilians, and meet other objectives. This is especially true for a country like Canada, which other than disaster relief at home almost exclusively deploys its armed forces in an expeditionary role, meaning in support of international missions far from our shores and permanent bases.
This has been a major foreign policy tool, gaining international political capital for Canada over and over. A robust fighter aircraft capacity is a critical part. Although the planes themselves are expensive, deploying them worldwide is simpler, faster and far cheaper than sending ground troops, which not only require immense amounts of their own equipment, fuel and other supplies, but depend on ships and aircraft to sustain them. A major army deployment involves the entire Canadian Armed Forces; the RCAF can go on its own. Nations that pull their weight during a conflict usually also gain a seat in the subsequent peace talks that shape the future diplomatic landscape. And, it should go without saying, international participation even when it’s inconvenient or risky is a requirement for virtually any nation to advance its other diplomatic, economic and security objectives.
Much as the current government and, probably, a plurality if not majority of Canadians might want to deny it, Canada simply isn’t immune to the implications of international conflict. In a world of cyber-attacks, hyper-sonic missiles and, soon, space-based weapons, everywhere is on the front line. Come what may, Canada is obliged to defend its airspace or risk losing its sovereignty. Canada remains in NATO, an organization that, thanks to Russian aggression, is finding newfound relevance. The post-Cold War “end of history” reverie was always illusory, and today it has virtually no adherents. The international system is shifting back to its historical structure of great power alliances and rivalries.
Numerous other countries, including far smaller ones, are taking their national defence seriously. Australia, for example, is mid-way through a massive rearmament of its navy, air force and army based on a clear-eyed appreciation that its very independence is threatened by China’s economic and military aggression. Even Belgium is acquiring the F-35 and tiny Finland is seriously considering doing the same. Canada isn’t a “little” country and hasn’t been for decades. With 37 million people and the world’s 10th largest economy, we have the resources to be a responsible and effective contributor to global security. But if we do not soon find the political will to do so, and choose to leave our air force saddled with a 4th generation aircraft, the current government’s juvenile claim that “Canada is back” may instead become “Canada was here.”