New RCAF fighters operational by 2032

KEN POLE  –  Jan 10, 2023

More than two decades after Canada became involved in what was known at the time as the U.S.-led Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, the federal government formally announced January 9 that it will begin taking deliveries of the first tranche of 16 F-35 Lightning II fighters from Lockheed Martin Corporation in 2026.

An initial 4 aircraft will be followed by 6 more in 2027 and then another 6 in 2028, setting the stage for as yet undetermined deliveries of 72 more for a Royal Canadian Air Force fleet of 88, which Defence Minister Anita Anand said would be fully operational by 2032. That year also will see the Royal Canadian Air Force’s remaining Boeing CF-188 Hornets taken out of service, their 1980s airframes kept operational until then with upgrades.

The F-35 first flew in 2006 and is now in service with the U.S. and 10 other countries, and have been ordered by Canada and 4 other countries. At $89 billion over a 40-year lifecycle, it will be the costliest RCAF procurement in 30 years. The unit cost is approximately US$85 million and the rest of the $19-billion contract for the first 16 covers some related equipment, training systems, initial support infrastructure and potentially some weapons. The balance is for major new facilities at the main fighter base in Bagotville, Quebec, and Cold Lake, Alberta. Those include new centres for mission planning and operations, maintenance, administration and simulators to train pilots on the single-seaters.

The procurement has been politically turbulent for Liberal and Conservative governments as they continued to invest in the JSF – if only to ensure their domestic aerospace industries could benefit as the program matured.

Canada’s commitment began in 1997 when it opted to become a participant a program the U.S. Department of Defense had announced in 1994 after years of internal debate about the prospect of a single aircraft type the DoD hoped would cut the cost of operating multiple fleets in its different commands. The DoD also wanted to spread the financial burden of developing such an exotic stealth platform that Lockheed Martin dubbed the first “fifth generation” aircraft.

While still essentially a paper exercise at the time, that potential attracted attention in Britain which also was faced with soaring defence costs, and it became the first foreign partner to sign on, in 1995. It wasn’t long before the U.S. effectively cajoled other countries into joining at various levels contingent on how much up-front money they committed.

When the Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien signed off that first time, the commitment was US$50 million but that has grown to more than $600 million over the years. However, it has proven a good investment in that Canadian companies have received some $3 billion in direct and indirect contracts from Lockheed Martin. Government officials the F-35 procurement could generate about 3,300 jobs annually over 25 years and contribute more than $425 million a year to Canada’s gross domestic product and there’s the continued potential of industrial benefits.

Program takes a major hit

As planning dragged on with various federal departments involved, the program took a hit in 2010 when the new Conservative government of PM Stephen Harper announced a sole-source contract for 65 aircraft with Lockheed Martin, upending the traditional procurement process of competitive bidding.

But the Conservatives lost the 2015 election after a campaign in which Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he would cancel the deal and buy “one of the many, lower-priced options that better match Canada's defence needs.” As Prime Minister, he continued to argue against the F-35. “The Conservatives completely missed the boat when it came to delivering to Canadians and their armed forces the equipment they needed,” he said in 2016.

Trudeau also said the Conservatives had “clung” to an aircraft “that does not work and is far from working.” He was referring to a number of technical setbacks in the F-35 program, some of which continue today, and so he rebooted what he said would be an “an open and transparent competition.” That left Lockheed Martin up against Boeing with its larger and more technically sophisticated F/A-18 Super Hornet, Sweden’s Saab AB with the JAS 39 Gripen, and Dassault Aviation of France with the Rafale. The latter dropped out early and the government eventually settled on the F-35 in March 2022 and began home-stretch negotiations with Lockheed Martin.

Asked at her virtual news conference about Trudeau’s 2015 election campaign comments and promise, Anand essentially demurred. “It’s a more mature fighter jet now, with better performance than it previously had, so will be ready to deal with all possibilities,” she replied. “We are sure this is the best response for our Canadian Armed Forces and for the protection of our country.” Moreover, she said, “it’s also the best price for our country at this time.”

An historical reminder

It’s worth noting that a few days before Anand confirmed the delivery agenda for that first tranche of F-35s, there was a protest in downtown Montreal – somewhat ironic considering that Montreal is this country’s largest aerospace hub – against the procurement. “No new fighter jets” was the cry from a group of 25 peace and justice organizations banded together as the No Fighter Jets Coalition.

The group calls the F-35s costly “killing machines and bad for the environment” and one of the protest organizers, Maya Garfinkel who is with World Beyond War, which wants a demilitarized Canada, said the government should focus on “more health care, more jobs, more housing.”

There is some validity in that argument but anyone who espouses demilitarization is arguably disingenuous at the very least. They should bear in mind the adage “si vis pacem, para bellum” or “if you want peace, prepare for war.” Written some 2,500 years ago and attributed to Latin author Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus in Dē Rē Mīlitārī, a treatise on strategy which was cited well into the Middle Ages, it actually was a bowdlerization of he actually wrote: Igitur quī dēsīderat pācem, præparet bellum” or “There let him who desires peace prepare for war.”

As relevant today as it was centuries ago, the concept was most recently manifest during the Cold War as the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed thousands of nuclear weapons that yielded the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. That MAD idea proved the worth of Publius’ advice and possibly prevented global conflict. Russia, whose bellicose leadership dreams of a new Soviet Union on the other side of the Arctic Ocean, cannot be discounted as a threat. Witness its war on Ukraine now in its 11th month.

Critics of Canada’s defence priorities should keep it in mind when they chant about freedom and their constitutionally-protect right to protest – which few in government or, indeed, the military, would dispute.

As DND spokesperson Jessica Lamirande put it recently in an email to Global News, “as Russia’s illegal and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, our world is growing darker and more complex, and the operational demands on the Canadian Armed Forces are increasing”

She went on to point out that we have “one of the largest expanses of coasts, land and airspace in the world – and a modern fleet of fighter jets is essential to protect our citizens” as well as “ensure the continued defence of North America through NORAD and contribute to the security of the NATO alliance.”

“Si vis pacem, para bellum” indeed.

Ken Pole