Seven years after vowing never to replace Canada’s aging fighter jet fleet with F-35s, the Trudeau Liberals are now planning to purchase 88 of them.
Defense Minister Anita Anand announced the news early Monday afternoon, confirming the government’s intentions to sign final purchase contracts with manufacturer Lockheed-Martin later this year.
“A new fleet of state-of-the-art fighter jets is essential for Canada’s security, sovereignty and ability to defend itself,” she said.
Canada’s road to replacing its fighter jets has been a 25-year odyssey, fraught with political machinations. In 1997, Jean Chrétien first signed onto the Joint Strike Fighter program.
In 2010, then-defence minister Peter MacKay announced Canada was entering into an untendered agreement to purchase 65 F-35s, with delivery expected in 2016 and at a cost of $9-billion.
A no-confidence vote triggered in part by refusals to release costs associated with the F-35 program led to the minority Harper government’s collapse 11 years ago this week, sending Canadians to polls and returning the Conservatives to power with a majority government.
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In 2015, opposition leader Justin Trudeau made the issue into a prominent plank in the Liberals’ election platform. “We will not buy the F-35 fighter jet,” he said, adding that if elected there would be a cheaper alternative.
“The Conservative government never actually justified or explained why they felt Canada needed a fifth-generation fighter,” Trudeau said in 2015. “They just talked about it like it was obvious. It was obvious, as we saw through the entire process, that they were particularly, and some might say unreasonably or unhealthily, attached to the F-35 aircraft.”
While the fighter replacement program stretches back across decades and several governments, Gen. Tom Lawson, retired Canadian Chief of Defense Staff and former RCAF aviator, credits concerns over Canada’s sovereignty in light of Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine with putting defense spending front-and-centre in the government’s priorities.
“It was Winston Churchill who said never to waste a good crisis,” Lawson said.
“That brings about ideal conditions for an announcement that might otherwise have been slightly embarrassing for the Liberals.”
On Monday, citing the precarious nature of current world affairs, Anand said it was important to ensure Canada’s military had the equipment it needed to maintain domestic security.
The F-35, she said, had proven itself to be both a mature and interoperable aircraft.
“This new fleet will ensure our continued ability to protect every inch of Canadian airspace, to meet our commitments to NORAD and NATO, and deal with unforeseen threats.”
Monday’s announcement came after officials with national defence, procurement and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) unanimously recommended proceeding with finalizing the contract with Lockheed-Martin, said Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi.
Contracts were awarded two years ago to outfit 3 Wing Bagotville and 4 Wing Cold Lake with infrastructure needed to support the F-35.
Late last year, the government pared down the list of fighter jet contenders to the F-35 and Saab’s Gripen line of multi-role fighters after excluding a bid from Boeing, whose predecessor McDonnell Douglas manufactured Canada’s current fleet of CF-18 Hornets.
While final costing has yet to be determined, the deal’s expected to be worth about $19-billion.
Final contracts should be signed later this year, Tassi said, with delivery expected by 2025.
A product of research by Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works — the company’s legendary advanced development unit responsible for the U-2 spy plane, SR-71 Blackbird and F-117 Nighthawk — the F-35 is already in active service by a number of air forces , including the United States, Israel, Japan, the UK and Australia.
The F-35 comes in three variants — the standard A-model Canada has its eye on, the short-takeoff/vertical-landing capable F-35B, and the tailhook-equipped F-35C designed for use on aircraft carriers.
Lorraine Ben, Lockheed-Martin Canada chief executive, said the company looked forward to continuing its relationship with CAF.
“As a cornerstone for interoperability with NORAD and NATO, the F-35 will strengthen Canada’s operational capability with our allies,” she said in a statement sent to the National Post.
“The F-35 gives pilots the critical advantage against any adversary, enabling them to execute their mission and come home safe.”
The F-35 will be Canada’s first Lockheed-built jet since the CF-104 Starfighter was retired from service in 1986.
Other Lockheed-Martin aircraft in CAF inventory include the C-130 Hercules/C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft and CP-140 Aurora marine patrol plane.
Lawson said the decision was a good one for Canada’s armed forces.
“When (in 2010) the Conservative government made the very decision that we’re seeing the Liberal government make 12 years later, it was pure joy,” said Lawson, who was the air force’s deputy commander at the time.
“Today it brings some joy, but mostly relief.”
Lawson, who also served as deputy commander of NORAD, said a fleet of Canadian F-35s was the ideal platform to continue Canada’s mission of protecting the north.
“The F-35 purchase just plain simplifies NORAD operations,” he said.
Erika Simpson, international politics professor at Western University in London, Ont., disagreed with that sentiment.
“Faced with the choice of what equipment to buy, I think the Liberals are printing money to buy more defense equipment that future generations will have to pay for,” she said, adding she believed Canada should instead return to examining unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV ) technology to patrol the arctic.
Germany’s decision earlier this month to buy F-35s to replace its aging Panavia Tornados could also have played a role in Canada’s decision to buy the jets, she said.
Canada, she said, was spending far too much money on an aircraft unsuited for our needs, and said this could mark the beginning of a defense spending spree by the Trudeau Liberals
“But that’s maybe not the way go, too,” Simpson said.
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