What If Canada's New Government Doesn’t Buy the F-35?

A technician performs post-flight checks on a Royal Canadian Air Force CF-188 Hornet in 2013. A technician performs post-flight checks on a Royal Canadian Air Force CF-188 Hornet in 2013. Canadian Air Force file photo

Justin Trudeau, the new Prime Minister, has vowed to “reduce the procurement budget for replacing the CF-18s” — its version of Boeing’s older F/A-18 Hornet — “and will instead purchase one of the many, lower-priced options that better match Canada’s defence needs.”

America’s Boeing, France’s Dassault, and even Sweden’s Saab have all offered cheaper alternatives to the F-35, built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.

“The [F-35] could face more competition from the F/A-18 and Dassault Rafale, both of which could be in production longer based on international orders,” Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners, wrote in a note to investors Tuesday. “While neither is comparable to the F-35, both represent good-enough alternatives for some countries.”

The Super Hornet, Rafale and Gripen are considered among the best of the current generation of fighter jets. But compared to the stealthy F-35, they stick out on radar like sore thumbs. If Canada chooses an older jet, it may also be dumping any hope of operating over battlefields protected by sophisticated surface-to-air missiles and long-range radars.

The F-35, like all stealthy aircraft, can carry a few weapons in a bomb bay, and hang more from its wings once enemy air defenses are no longer a concern. In the U.S. military, stealthy B-2 aircraft often deliver the “first strike,” taking out surface-to-air missiles and enemy aircraft, as in Libya. Once those threats are destroyed, non-stealthy aircraft, such as F/A-18s, F-16s and A-10s come in and support ground forces.

The U.S. military has used stealthy F-22 fighters to bomb Islamic State militants in Syria, particularly in the early stages of the campaign when it did not know whether President Bashar al-Assad would fire back at the American warplanes. F-22s and other non-stealthy jets have been striking ISIS targets ever since.

Canada, which is part of the anti-ISIS coalition, has sent its CF-18s to strike targets in Syria. But Trudeau’s party has questioned the need for stealthy attack aircraft if Canada is not flying first-strike missions.

“The primary mission of our fighter aircraft should remain the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability,” the Liberal party writes. That mission includes intercepting enemy planes and ships; American and Canadian fighter jets occasionally intercept Russian bombers in international airspace near their coastlines.

Canada has planned to buy 60 F-35s to replace its 30-year-old CF-18 Hornets, but the purchase has been debated for years — memorably stirred by a 2014 video of two boys playing with toy fighter jets. When a boy says he bought an F-35 with the $10 given to him by his grandfather, his brother says he bought three Super Hornets.

Experts say the Super Hornet — cheaper and easily integrated into the Canadian Air Force — is indeed the most likely replacement for the F-35.

“What they really want is something that guarantees air sovereignty, and frankly, the CF-18 has done the job and chances are the Super Hornet will do the job,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group consulting firm.

The CF-18 has been Canada’s only fighter jet since the CF-5 Freedom Fighter retired 20 years ago. Canada has been part of the F-35 project since the 1990s, and officially became a program partner in 2002. Canadian companies supply parts for the F-35.

Had conservatives won Canada’s election, the government would likely have bought four to eight F-35s a year beginning in 2017, Callan wrote. Each would have cost $80 million to $100 million. But if Canada drops out of the international program, the price tag could rise for everyone else. “[A]n issue for the F-35 remains how much further the unit price could be reduced, particularly if planned production rates aren't achieved by 2018-2020,” Callan wrote.

Aboulafia said that if the Trudeau government inks a deal to buy a new aircraft, it is unlikely a new government down the road would void that to buy F-35s. Canada “kept putting off their replacement requirement both for budgetary reasons and because they were waiting for the F-35,” Aboulafia said. “Now that the new government has come in, they have a rationale for a pressing purchase decision, [which means] it’ll happen on their watch and it will stay happened on their watch.”

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