Canada wants to equip its Air Force with 88 F-35A fighter jets under Canada’s Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP). According to its defense minister, negotiations with Lockheed Martin have already begun.
These 88 5th generation fighter jets will replace the 40-year-old fleet of CF-118s, local designation of the F/A-18 Hornet, operated by the Air Force if negotiations bring results.
The Ministry of Defense stated that the acquisition would cost about 15 billion US dollars, although the final amount may vary due to the chosen weapons and equipment.
Last month, the Minister of Public Services and Supply, Filomena Tassi, said at a press conference that the government wants to sign a contract by the end of the year. As per the plan, the first plane should be delivered in 2025 and the last in 2032. By that time, the CF-18s will then be around 50 years old.
The decision represents a political u-turn by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, upon coming to power in 2015, promised not to acquire the F-35A for the Royal Canadian Air Force to cut defense spending. During the past seven years, to replace the increasingly ageing Hornet, “fixes” were used, such as the purchase in 2018 of 18 second-hand flyable F/A-18s and seven non-flyable aircraft for spares from Australia.
“Canada has one of the largest airspaces in the world, and we must ensure that our next fleet of fighter jets is flexible, agile and able to respond to a wide range of threats,” explained the Minister of Defense to justify the significant military investment.
Suppose the negotiations with Lockheed Martin are unsuccessful; the Canadian government reserves the right to turn to the Swedish manufacturer Saab, whose Gripen E fighter came second behind the F-35 in the competition.
According to the Defense Minister, at each stage of the process, the bidders, of which SAAB and Lockheed Martin were the two finalists, had to prove that their aircraft design could meet Canada’s needs, including the ability to operate effectively in the harsh weather conditions in Canada’s North.
Adaptation work will be carried out on Cold Lake (Alberta), one of Canada’s busiest air bases and Bagotville (Quebec) base to accommodate the new aircraft.
The Government of Canada, in the new global defense context, a direct effect of the war in Ukraine, has had no choice but to reactivate the F/A-18 Hornet relief program. Otherwise, it would have to entrust the integrated protection of its airspace to the neighbouring United States, with which it shares the North American air defence command or North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
In 2010, the previous Canadian government, of conservative Stephen Harper, decided to acquire 65 units of the F-35A for about seven billion US Dollars. In April 2012, in a damning report, the Auditor General of Canada concluded that the project to acquire the F-35 fighters was in full swing but criticized the Harper government and National Defense for having underestimated the cost of acquiring the aircraft.
In 2015, the purchase was cancelled with Trudeau’s Liberal Party’s coming to power. Canada then committed to never acquiring F-35s and launched a public tender in 2019 to replace the CF-118 fleet.
In 2019, Canada relaunched the tenders for the purchase of 88 new fighters to be delivered by 2025 to the Royal Canadian Air Force. The competition was notably open to the F-18 Super Hornet as well as the F35. The European multinationals Airbus Defense & Space and Dassault Aviation had pitched their Eurofighter and Rafale fighter jets, respectively. But soon, the companies withdrew from the race after accusing the Canadian Ministry of Defense of favouring Lockheed Martin and Boeing, who pitched F-35s and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet block III, respectively.
Canada and the F-35 consortium
Canada is part of a program related to the design, manufacture and maintenance of the F-35, which facilitates its participation in the supply chain. Some thirty companies from Canada had obtained contracts from the program.
The Canadian contract is different from the contracts of the other partner countries in the F-35 consortium. Canadian companies have the right to bid on global supply chain contracts, while the partner countries cannot. The partners, on the other hand, can demand economic advantages as a precondition for the purchase of the plane.
In a recent revision obtained during Donald Trumps’ regime, the plane is not to be excluded from the competition, but Canada can be penalized if it chooses a different plane.
Over the next few months, Canada will have to ensure that it obtains the most economic spinoffs from its multi-billion dollar investment in the new F-35s.