Canada to purchase 65 U.S. stealth fighter aircraft
Canada will soon join the ranks of 21st century military aviation. The Federal Government announced that it will purchase 65 new F-35 Lightning II's to replace the aging, multi-role workhorse of the Canadian Forces Air Command, the CF-18/A Hornet. This decision, to an untrained observer, may seem to be just part and parcel with the otherwise dull and innocuous process of military procurement.
In reality, it is perhaps the most expensive military purchase by the Canadian government for a single weapon system in the history of this country. The Department of National Defence (DND) will be outlaying, all told, $16 billion for the aircraft. Consider that Canada's defence budget is something like $21 billion. Now, the procurement and payment process will not occur in one swoop, of course. Nevertheless, it is a staggering number.
Is Canada getting a good deal here?
Should the federal government wait and see what cheaper alternatives are out there?
Yes, and no.
The F-35 Lightning II was the product of a defence procurement project by the U.S. department of defence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Joint Strike Fighter program was, and remains, one of the largest defence procurement projects for a single weapon system, even for the Americans. It involved an intense head to head competition between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, some of the U.S.'s largest defence contractors. Boeing advanced its X-32 fighter - a Delta Wing multi-role fighter. Lockheed-Martin put forth the X-35 Lightning II, the eventual winner. The result of this competition produced two peerless multi-role stealth fighters for the the U.S. military, with the X-32 being jettisoned.
It is the "joint" that has the greatest benefit for Canada. The project is "joint" in a number of respects. First, on a strictly technical level, the fighters themselves contain the peak of battlefield awareness technology and advanced avionics. Coupled with now mastered stealth technology (the ability to deflect radar and contain heat signatures), they are a lethal threat to both air-to-air and air-to-ground targets.
Third, the JSF project, writ large, is an international project. North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations, including Canada, Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Turkey, and Norway are all committed partners. Non-NATO nations, too, have joined. Australia has committed itself, while Israel and Japan are expressing interest.
In no small way, then, the F-35 Lightning II will be the "flagship" of the Atlantic Alliance, and perhaps, the larger Western community. It is particularly heartening to see the U.S. share its once jealously guarded monopoly on stealth technology with its allies. The result of all this is that the F-35 is, in and of itself, the stand-alone weapon system for the 21st century.
The promise of the vaunted F-22 Raptor fell to financial constraints. Now, it is the F-35 that major defence contractors and wealthy, connected NATO allies will be relying on. In this case, from the perspective of long term defence interoperability with U.S. and NATO forces, (the ability to integrate military systems and replace weapons) the F-35 is the obvious choice.
Despite this, some in Ottawa and the defence community are questioning the government's decision to award the largest defence contract in Canadian history without a normal tendering process, and consider potential alternatives. There is, however, merit to the government's claim that only the F-35 met its qualifications for a replacement, multi-role fighter aircraft. Despite the Boeing corporation's attempt to sow seeds of doubt, the government picked a program on solid ground, and can safely claim the alternatives simply do not stack up, both in terms of technical specifics and the needs of the Canadian Forces.
Breifly, there are a handful of alternative fighter aircrafts in the world that are the F-35's competitors.
First, there is the latest generation of F-18 Hornets - the F-18/E/F/G editions. Essentially, these are upgraded versions of Canada's CF-18/A's and B's. These will serve alongside the F-35 in the U.S. military, and are, to be sure, the most proven production fighter aircraft in the world. That said, these aircraft are not stealth capable. They are, moreover, running on a platform - an engine system - that is going on twenty years old. When the U.S. military decided to test its F-22 against these F-18s, a single F-22 stealth fighter shot down (in a simulation) 6 F-18s without the F-18s even knowing the location of the F-22. While the F-35 isn't the "air-supremacy" fighter plane that the 22 is, it nonetheless uses the same stealth technology, and is a more-than-capable fighter-interceptor. In the end, Canada would be paying a similar multi-billion dollar contract for dated technology.
Then there is the Eurofighter Typhoon, a product of a joint European defence project (Britain again, Germany, Spain, Austria, and Italy). It is another multi-role aircraft. However, it again lacks stealth technology. And while advertised as multi-role aircraft, it seems to slide closer towards the air-to-air defence role. In any case, adopting the Euro-fighter would not likely save Canada any money.
We would lose the backing of the largest defence contractors in the world - meaning when our planes literally hit the fan, we cannot just order replacements from across the border, but rather, from Germany and the UK. The Euro-fighter has also been mired in delays, and has not made great strides to exporting the technology outside the EU. Whatever savings shaved off would be picked up by logistical costs.
Then there's the Russians. The Russian aviation industry has a proud tradition. The Suhkoi line of air-craft are the F-35's direct challengers and potential future adversaries. But, realistically, other than making anti-American Canadians feel placated, adopting say the Suhkoi Su-37 Flanker would have little practical benefit. Russia is potentially short of money for future development and technological support. Canada and Russian have almost no history of defence sharing. It would also be an open-palmed slap to the face of our American allies, who have generously shared some of their best technology. Russian equipment would also be inoperable with our Canadian and U.S. built systems, at least before great renovations. This is not a serious alternative.
Thus, while it would have been nice to have an Dutch auction, where all the bidders attempt to lower their prices in a mad scramble to get their plane accepted, the reality is that Canada would probably not have saved all that much money. In this case, we could have ended up saddled with an inferior aircraft and, at the same time, disappointed our American and NATO allies. Indeed, trying to squeeze out money during this process would inject delay's into a procurement process that already takes decades.
The F-35s are not scheduled to enter regular service for at least seven years. Canada is getting perhaps the best deal it could hope for. Canada needs an aircraft that can not only streak north at supersonic speeds to intercept Russian northern probes, but also an advanced fighter bomber. It needs to be able to do so while working closely with both U.S. and NATO forces. The CF-35 will do all that, and more, while nearly invisible to most defensive systems. Its competitors cannot match its technical merits and its the quality of its investors. It behooves Canada then to follow through with his project.