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.

Second, the project is a 'joint' consortium of several defence contractors. Lockheed-Martin is the lead contractor, but Northrop Grumman and Britain's BAE Systems also are substantial contributors.

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.

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