The contracts are not yet signed, and Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi warned on Monday there is no guarantee that Lockheed Martin will be the one signing the contract expected later this year.
But the U.S. aerospace firm is now in finalization talks with the government — meaning that unless those talks fall apart, it is more likely than not that the Royal Canadian Air Force will fly F-35s in the near future.
Although the process of choosing a new fighter jet has been long, questions remain on what the F-35 brings to the table, how it compares to Canada’s current fighters, and what the selection indicates about the role the Canadian Forces will play in multilateral operations going forward.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is the F-35 fighter jet?
The F-35 fighter jet is the product of what’s known as the Joint Strike Fighter program run by Lockheed Martin, an American aerospace firm, in collaboration with the U.S. government.
The program is an initiative by the U.S. Department of Defense to build and replace the fighter jets used in both the American military as well as those in allied countries that operate closely with the U.S.
Through the program, Canada and seven other allied countries have been contributing to the development of the F-35 fighter jet, with all participants paying into the program to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars since the 1990s.
For Canada, those contributions began back in 1997, when former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien signed the country onto the development program.
Because of the $613 million already paid into the program since 1997 — which gives Canadian companies a chance at bidding on contracts for work related to it — the question of whether to continue is one that’s been politically fraught even as cost projections rose.
The former Conservative government claimed in 2010 that buying 64 F-35s would cost $9 billion.
But an auditor general report shortly afterwards said those costs failed to account for the money it would take to keep the fleet running over its entire life cycle. With all of those costs factored in, the auditor general said the cost was actually closer to $44 billion.
Cost overruns along with mechanical problems put the Joint Strike Fighter program under tough scrutiny in the previous decade. Those problems led to the New York Times in a 2019 examination describing the program’s reputation as “dysfunctional” even as it noted that those bad fortunes appeared to be turning around.
Dave Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, testified about the jet procurement at a House of Commons committee on Tuesday and was asked about the program’s history of mechanical problems. He said many of the problems that initially plagued the program have now been worked out as the jet runs through upgrades finetuning the massive amount of technology onboard.
“With a lot of these airplanes, they’re in continuous upgrades because they’re effectively flying supercomputers,” he told the committee. “Currently, there are more of these issues that have been resolved and worked out than there were 12 years ago.”
Throughout it all, a big part of the arguments made for procuring the jet has centred on one word: Stealth.
What is a 'stealth' fighter jet?
Lockheed Martin describes the F-35 as the “most advanced” jet on the market, providing “unprecedented situational awareness” with the ability to operate in five different types of domains: air, land, sea, space or cybersphere.
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Some models of the jet can take off from aircraft carriers for use in naval operations, though not the model Canada is eyeing. The jet is also outfitted with electronic warfare technology that Lockheed Martin has said is designed to “locate/track enemy forces, jam radars and disrupt attacks.”
That electronic warfare technology, the technical details of which are thin publicly, have been billed as central to the company’s pitch that the F-35 is the most “survivable” fighter jet available as warfare increasingly shifts into the cybersphere.
Being able to do that while ensuring that the jet’s electromagnetic and radar signatures aren’t glaring to enemies goes part and parcel with the emphasis on stealth.
Summed up, stealth refers to the jet’s ability to evade detection. The company says this gives pilots an advantage and ups their chances of survival when operating in contested areas.
“The F-35’s aligned edges, reduced engine signature, internal carriage of weapons and fuel and embedded sensors all contribute to its unique stealth performance,” says Lockheed Martin, describing the jet’s abilities as “unmatched.”
It’s important to understand, though, that “stealth” does not mean “invisible,” said one expert.
“I think when people hear stealth, they think like, Batman Returns,” said Jeff Collins, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a defence policy expert.
“That’s not what it means. It means reducing the radar signature, and that has to do with the design of the aircraft and the coating that’s put on.”
He pointed to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the subsequent highly effective targeting of Russian fighter jets by Ukrainians as a clear example of what can happen without stealth capabilities.
“They’re essentially getting blown out of the sky by Stinger missiles and by the Ukrainian Air Force,” Collins explained.
“So the ability of the aircraft to minimize its radar signature is certainly crucial when overflying a hot zone where it’s not just dealing with fighter aircraft from an opposing side, but actually ground-based anti-air systems.”
How well does the F-35 actually work?
Over the years, there have been questions raised about whether the single-engine used by both the F-35 and the Saab Gripen, which is the second-ranked jet candidate in the Canadian contest, raises the risk of catastrophic crashes without the security of a second engine.
Both the F-35 and the Gripen use one engine compared to the two engines on the CF-18 Boeing Hornets that Canada currently flies.
The country’s remote expanses of territory, particularly in the Arctic, and challenges in rapid search and rescue functions mean the risks of a single-engine aircraft are amplified for Canadian pilots, argued a 2014 report titled One Dead Pilot by defence policy expert Michael Byers.
Perry said other Arctic allies, including Denmark and Finland, as well as the U.S. in Alaska, are successfully using the F-35 in harsh conditions.
“We will definitely not be alone in that,” he said.
How will Canada likely use the F-35?
Germany, which has long been compared to Canada in terms of historically lagging on defence spending, just two weeks ago committed to ordering F-35 jets “for the task of nuclear sharing” in the wake of a defence policy reset sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nuclear sharing refers to the NATO policy that allows certain alliance members to carry and transport the U.S. nuclear weapons that are stationed within Europe in the event those weapons need to be deployed.
According to a December 2021 U.S. government fact sheet about the nuclear sharing program, only a handful of fighter jets are certified to participate: the F-15E, several models of the F-16, the B-21 (which remains in development) and the F-35.
Fears of nuclear attack have been rising as Russian President Vladimir Putin has twice now raised the spectre of nuclear warfare over the West’s response to his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
And while the jet replacement process began long before the invasion of Ukraine, experts say the context matters, because of the Canadian government’s requirement that any purchased fighter jet be able to operate in both NORAD and NATO missions.
The decision leaves Collins “hopefully optimistic” that the decision to enter final talks about the F-35 signifies a recognition from the government that “buying equipment matters to foreign policy.”
“Kicking the can down the road on the decision is really symbolic of a luxurious era of foreign policy that Canada no longer has,” Collins said, before pointing to the invasion of Ukraine.