Canada has had its very own F-35 saga over the last decade. In Ottawa, the beleaguered jet is so politically controversial that its procurement has become a major policy differential between the parties. Now, with the Liberals winning yesterday’s vote, it seems nearly impossible for the F-35 to find a home with America’s neighbor to the north.
Make sure to read the piece below for full background and opinion:
Just last month, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau made it clear that he intends to scrap the F-35 program all together. In its place he intends to run an transparent competition to choose a more affordable fighter. Even without Trudeau’s recent comments, it is crystal clear that Canada’s Liberal party wants nothing to do with the F-35. Their official platform on the F-35 is laid out on their webpage:
“We will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber.
We will immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft. The primary mission of our fighter aircraft should remain the defense of North America, not stealth first-strike capability.
We will reduce the procurement budget for replacing the CF-18s, and will instead purchase one of the many, lower-priced options that better match Canada’s defense needs.”
Trudeau has said that savings from dropping the F-35 will be used to invest in Canada’s naval capabilities. This reallocation of funds would include investing in new icebreakers, search and rescue ships and aircraft and building more surface combatants. Trudeau has also alluded to an initiative to refocus Canada’s military into a leaner, smarter, more potent fighting force. One that incorporates new technologies like long-endurance unmanned surveillance aircraft.
As for a new fighter aircraft, Trudeau and the Liberals have stated again and again that Canada’s fighter corps’ primary mission is self defense, and there is no need for the F-35’s expensive stealth first-strike capabilities. As such, the likely contenders will to replace Canada’s aging Hornets will be the F/A-18E Super Hornet, the French Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and possibly the JAS-39E Gripen, with the Super Hornet being the clear incumbent.
Trudeau said this at a press conference on September 21st:
“The Conservative government never actually justified or explained why they felt Canada needed a fifth-generation fighter. They just talked about it like it was obvious. It was obvious, as we saw through the entire process, that they were particularly, and some might say unreasonably or unhealthily, attached to the F-35 aircraft.
The fact is we need an aircraft that’s going to meet Canada’s No. 1 priority, which is defending North American airspace, and there are a wide number of very credible, serious aircraft out there who can bid for that and be respectable and responsible replacements for the CF-18s instead of the F-35s.”
The end of the Harper Administration in Canada and the start of a Trudeau Administration could be especially welcome news to Boeing’s Super Hornet program. Orders will be needed to keep the Super Hornet production line open into the 2020s. Replacing Canada’s roughly 75 aging CF-18 Hornets could mean close to a four year extension of production for Boeing’s St. Louis plant at Boeing’s stated minimum production rate of 24 Super Hornets per year.
Additional orders from other foreign countries could keep the line churning well into the next decade, but securing Canada’s order would take a lot of near-term pressure off the Super Hornet program.
Although the Super Hornet makes great sense for Canada, Trudeau has demanded an open and clear competition, during which the aforementioned fighter manufacturers will bring their latest and greatest options list for their already battle-proven jets. The Rafale in particular has become a very popular in the export market as of late. With many secure export orders in place, Canada could buy the French fighter with confidence. On the other hand, any European product will lack the commonality and ease of pilot and crew conversion, as well as the weapons integration synergy that the Super Hornet provides.
There is a good chance that Boeing will also offer the E/A-18G Growler electronic attack variant of the Super Hornet to Canada for a portion of their fighter buy. This would help offset some of operability and survivability in contested environments lost by abandoning the F-35. At the very least, new Super Hornets can be sold with Growler wiring so that they can be converted to the Growler configuration in the future if Canada wishes to do so.
Canada’s turning away from the F-35 could send ripples through the program and effect the decisions of other international customers who have yet to write a check for dozens of $110 million F-35 airframes that will cost far more than their older counterparts to operate. Many smaller air arms that use their fighters primarily for air defense and to occasionally aid in NATO operations may ask themselves: if Canada rationalized that the F-35 is unnecessary, maybe the same is true for us?
Like other F-35 partner countries, Canada produces components for the F-35 today. This business, which is stated to be worth $637 million, may become hard to sustain if Canada walks away from the program to purchase another fighter design. Yet any deal for another fighter type, especially one that is struggling for sales, will either be such a good direct value that the industrial offsets would be a non-factor, or manufacturers will offer their own offset packages that will also be highly lucrative. France in particular has been very bullish with offsets for large fighter orders.
It will be interesting to see an old-fashioned fighter competition right here in North America once again. After years of questionable motives, peculiar math and loads of political infighting, Canada will be able to evaluate each aircraft for their merits and in reflection of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s realistic needs.
May the best, or seemingly the most logical, fighter for Canada win.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.
Image credit: F-35- Lockheed, Super Hornet Advanced- Boeing, Rafale- French Ministry of Defense.