Canada has finalized a long-awaited deal to replace its aging fleet of CF-18 fighter jets with 88 of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighters set to begin arriving in the coming years, Defence Minister Anita Anand announced on Monday.
While the project budget is $19 billion, officials said in a technical briefing Monday morning that the cost estimate for the lifecycle of these fighter jets is expected to land around $70 billion.
The first aircraft are set to be delivered in 2026, officials said, and the full fleet is expected to reach operational capability between 2032 and 2034.
“The F-35 advanced fighter aircraft fleet will ensure that our aviators have the long-term ability to defend the second largest airspace in the world,” Anand said during the Monday announcement.
“It will help us to meet our NORAD and NATO commitments and it will also deliver concrete economic benefits to our country.”
In a statement, the chief executive of Lockheed Martin Canada, Lorraine Ben, said the company is “honoured” to have been selected for the project.
“The F-35 program yields tremendous economic benefits for Canada’s aerospace and defence industry, and we look forward to continued growth,” she said.
The deal directly contradicts a 2015 pledge from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that Canada “will not buy the F-35” after controversial cost estimates forced the previous government to put an earlier F-35 deal on ice.
When pressed on this contradiction, Anand said this was a “highly complex” procurement.
“Since 2015 the aircraft has matured, and we see now that many of our allies, eight countries in particular, are using the F-35,” she added.
Anand’s comments come after years of delays and deliberation as the government set out to finalize a contract to replace its existing fighter jets.
F-35 deal follows years of deliberation
The federal government launched the competition to replace its aging fleet of Boeing CF-18 fighter jets in 2017, when the government also said it would buy 25 used jets of the same model from Australia as a bridge toward a longer-term fleet replacement.
But with increased demands on the Canadian military, pressure has continued to mount on the government to speed up procurement in the process that has been underway for more than 20 years.
While the government has been in talks about the F-35 since the late 1990s, the former Conservative government formally announced its intent to buy 65 of the stealth fighter jets in 2010.
Deliveries at the time were projected to begin in 2016 — but high costs and concerns about inaccurate budgeting dominated headlines over the subsequent years, with the auditor general in 2012 criticizing the handling of the sole-sourced deal.
By the time of the 2015 federal election, then-Liberal leader Justin Trudeau vowed he would not buy the F-35 jets, pledging instead to look into a “more affordable aircraft.”
Despite that promise, the government did not exclude Lockheed Martin from entering the contest for a replacement fleet — and now, seven years later, Trudeau’s government has finalized a deal for the fleet it promised not to purchase in 2015.
“This is a decision that probably should have been made a decade ago, maybe even five years ago,” said Richard Shimooka, a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.
“The delays have been so serious and so long coming that … it’s had some serious consequences for Canada’s ability to defend itself.”
Canada’s air force has struggled to retain its pilots, and Shimooka said the outdated fleet and everlasting deliberations over a potential replacement didn’t help this issue.
The air force is supposed to have about 1,500 pilots, but was short around 225 at the end of December 2019. According to the Canadian Press, the issued had improved slightly by 2021 — but the air force was still short about 130 pilots.
“We’ve just not replaced an aircraft that needed to be replaced and are flying, you know, an aircraft that is 50 years old,” Shimooka said.
“It’s basically obsolete compared to what every single one our allies operate. So many pilots just see that as just being unacceptable, and … they’ve decided to vote with their feet and leave.”
On top of that, the delays impacted Canada’s reliability as “a good ally” among partner nations, Shimooka said, and hit Canadian industry, which has a large aerospace sector.
“It’s had effects across the country,” Shimooka said.
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 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.
Still, the fighter jet is proving popular with many of Canada’s allies.
“The F-35 is basically a new generation of aircraft,” Shimooka said.
“It’s entering the service with basically almost every single one of our allies. It combines a bunch of different new systems.”
One of those new systems, he explained, is something called “advanced battlefield networking,” which provides the ability to “identify, track and attack targets across a large area using multiple sensors, multiple different platforms, operating together.”
This system is extremely helpful when a country needs to defend and operate in a large area, such as Canada’s north.
“This aircraft actually is much more capable than almost anything else out there in in that in that regard.”
Many of the arguments made for procuring the jet, however, have centred on one word: stealth.
What is a ‘stealth’ 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.
Some models of the jet can take off from aircraft carriers for use in naval operations, though not the model Canada has settled on. 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, has 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.
— with files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly