The F-35 is Down but Not Out as Canada’s Next Fighter

by Philippe Lagassé

The Harper government recently announced that the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat (NFPS) will be looking at various options to replace Canada’s aging CF-18s. This comes at a time when the news about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the plane that the Department of National Defence (DND) and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) favour, is facing ever more challenges. Coupled with the controversy that has surrounded this aircraft already, the government’s decision to allow the NFPS to examine other options may be seen as an initial effort to back carefully away from the Joint Strike Fighter.

However, it is important to recognize that it will not be easy for the Canadian government to abandon the F-35, a point that the Auditor General stressed in his spring 2012 report.  While cost concerns, political imperatives, and a smaller than anticipated defence budget may be compelling the government to cast doubt on the Joint Strike Fighter, two factors will help it retain its spot as the likeliest aircraft to replace the CF-18s.

‘We shouldn’t be overly surprised if the NFPS recommends the F-35, or a mixed fleet that includes some F-35s, despite all of the difficulties that have hounded the plane.’


Industrial and procedural considerations

Defence procurement involves large amount of public money. There is a well- established consensus that some of this money should be spent in a way that benefits Canadian industry or particular regions.  This is the underlying logic behind Canada’s industrial and regional benefits (IRB) policy, under which firms must indicate how they will invest in Canadian industry if they win a major defence procurement contract. But these benefits do not necessarily involve investments in high technology or anything directly related to the procurement itself. What matters is the monetary amount of the IRBs.

The F-35 consortium changes the nature and provision of industrial benefits. Instead of receiving standard IRBs, the firms of consortium members bid on contracts for components of the F-35 itself. The advantage is that these are directly linked with the development of the aircraft, hence will tend to involve higher technologies and be more lucrative (assuming the F-35 achieves its sales and production targets). This has proved to be particularly attractive to the Canadian aerospace industry. The Canadian government estimates that, over the lifespan of the F-35, Canadian industry would benefit from $6-12 billion in contracts.

The F-35 consortium was conceived as a novel, more efficient way to develop and market military equipment. Rather than have firms develop distinct platforms and compete to win the contracts with different governments at various points in time, the consortium was meant to achieve greater economies of scale through higher sales and predetermined peaked production schedules. It would thereby reduce per unit costs for members, who would also be eligible for more enticing industrial benefits. Simply put, the idea was to reduce both the seller’s and buyers’ costs. If the F-35 ultimately succeeds, it will show that this alternative way of managing and delivering a major weapons platform can work. If it fails, it will cast serious doubt on the viability of similar efficiency-seeking ventures in the future. In this sense, the consortium members have a stake in ensuring that this process works.


Expeditionary operations alongside allies

What about the military considerations: why does the air force want the F-35? What does it provide them that another aircraft might not? The F-35 is not the fastest fighter out there; it doesn’t have the greatest range; it can carry a relatively limited number of munitions; its stealth characteristics come at a cost in terms of other capabilities and capacities; it only has a single engine, which could be problem when operating in Canada. So why is the F-35 so attractive to the RCAF?

Assuming it lives up to its full potential, the F-35 would allow the RCAF to seamlessly interoperate and integrate with allied air forces operating the F-35 or F-22 during bombardment missions against adversaries overseas. But does Canada need to have this ability?

The RCAF can make several cases. First, Canadian defence policy has been focused on expeditionary operations since the Korean War and there is good reason to believe that this won’t change soon. Taking part in such operations is seen as important to Canada’s standing as an ally: it demonstrates a willingness to share burdens. In theory, taking part in these operations also affords Canada respect amongst its principal allies, which the Canadian foreign and defence policy communities value. As well, taking part in such missions is thought to give Canada a degree of influence, at least at the operational level.

Second, even if this government decides that the military doesn’t need to take part in these types of operations, a future government might ask the air force to contribute fighters to risky expeditionary combat operations. Aware that they might be asked to do this, the RCAF wants to acquire what it believes is the best, most advanced equipment. For the leadership of the RCAF this is prudence plain and simple, and a duty to pilots who might be asked to fly these missions.

A related issue is the RCAF’s sense of itself: it does not see itself as a troop carrier and continental force only. In fact, all of the three services are focused on their expeditionary combat capabilities rather than their domestic and continental roles

And all three services believe they contribute to national and international security by operating alongside allies overseas. Accordingly, the RCAF will make a valiant effort to convince the NFPS that only the F-35 will do for Canada.

In the end, of course, there is no guarantee that the F-35 will win out. There are simply too many factors that could undermine the Joint Strike Fighter between now and when the Canadian government signs a contract to buy new fighters. But we shouldn’t be overly surprised if the NFPS recommends the F-35, or a mixed fleet that includes some F-35s, despite all of the difficulties that have hounded the plane.

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