Part One: Canadian Procurement Practices and Politics: A Short History

By June 14, 2017 No Comments

Below is Part One of a two-part series detailing the history of Canadian procurement practices, Canada’s role in the Joint Strike Fighter Program, and the government’s procurement process of the F-35 fighter. 

In the view of some, Canada has fallen back into the situation of politicizing the military procurement process. “Equipment procurement has always had a political edge but it has been more clearly politicized in recent years.  The process of helicopter purchases in 1992-93 is a recent example.”[1]  In a similar circumstance to our current situation, a Progressive Conservative government decision to buy EH-101 helicopters was cancelled following the 1993 election, in which the Liberal Party took power. The decision was debated at the time, but the impact of such a decision became apparent in 1998, when requests emerged for new SAR (Search and Rescue) aircraft. For every hour in the air, the aging sea king helicopters had to spend twenty-five hours in maintenance.[2] “The crash of a SAR Labrador helicopter on the 2nd of December 1998, killing all six crewmen, underlined the desperate condition of the SAR fleet; the type was grounded for several weeks, saved for only the direst emergencies.”[3] Sadly, a potential re-occurrence of such an incident occurred on November 28, 2016. Hamilton, Ont. native, Captain Thomas McQueen, died during a routine training exercise in his CF-188 over Cold Lake Air Weapons Range in Alberta. Due to the CF-188’s length of service, and accumulated air time, the aircraft requires exhaustive regular maintenance. The situation has become dire, as a number of units were released from active service to be dismantled and used for spare parts. “[It is clear that] the CF-188 is outdated and requires replacement.”[4]The cause of the crash, which culminated in the death of Captain McQueen is unknown at this time, age and condition of the aircraft must be considered in an enquiry.

Canada’s current fixed-wing procurement process is not without historical precedent. During the outbreak of the Second World War, Canada found it extremely difficult to procure aircraft. The supply of aircraft was threatened by the limited numbers of operational combat aircraft available to the RCAF at the outbreak of war, and in the inability to produce aircraft or reliably purchase them. The Canadian aerospace industry was extremely limited at the start of the Second World War in a similar manner to Canada’s stagnant aerospace industry today. At the onset of war, Canada and Britain were competing for the limited supply of fighters, bombers, and maritime patrol aircraft available in the United States and the United Kingdom.[5]  Canada faced a similar question of procurement at the end of the Second World War. As Canada’s aerospace industry was in its infancy, Canada procured the CL-13, a Canadian variant of the F-86 Sabre, which was produced within Canada by the means of licensing agreements. The resulting aircraft was used, exported and sold by Canada. The Canadair CL-13 was the last Canadian procurement of American fixed-wing fighters prior to the CF-105 Avro Arrow program.[6] The cancellation of the Arrow is widely regarded as a miscalculation by the Diefenbaker administration that crippled the Canadian aerospace industry. Perhaps the procurement of the F-35, which involves the participation of sections of the Canadian aerospace industry, could provide a stimulus to Canadian aircraft manufacturers through contracts and technology sharing to revitalize the industry in Canada.[7]


Twelve years ago, concerns regarding maintenance on the CF-188 had developed, as “already strained due to financial pressures and (at times) ambiguous political direction, the Air Force has been working with extremely limited resources.”[8] Working in an environment that requires devising ingenious solutions to equipment problems, directly affecting equipment and personnel, unnecessarily adds to the risk of military service.

“Operating at such a high tempo with limited resources is not sustainable—neither in terms of equipment nor personnel. Yet it is not acceptable to the Air Force or Canadians to opt out of missions where a contribution can be made. To do so due to resource constraints would be to relinquish the Canadian Force’s commitment to international peace and stability and to diminish Canada’s credibility internationally.”[9]

A HISTORIC ISSUE: Single versus multi-engine platforms

The supposed Canadian proposition which has dictated RCAF procurement for decades, other than cost, is that of cold-weather operability. The idea that an aircraft requires two engines to safely operate in the Arctic now appears to be an outdated concept that originated during the developmental stage of jet-turbine engines. Engines have become significantly more reliable altering the main cause of engine-related accidents. Most modern engine-related mishaps occur due to human error when maintaining or overhauling an engine following extended use.  As former USAF General Renuart points out:

“Those who would argue that Canadian’s next fighter should only be a two engine airplane do not understand the great capability that we have in our single-engine aircraft today… Our experience has been that the number of single-engine failure losses that resulted in a Class-A [mishap] has less to do with travelling over water and long distances, and more to do with a very occasional time when the motor comes apart… I never had the Canadian military express any concern over whether we were operating a single-engine aircraft or two-engine aircraft.”[10]

The perceived value of redundancy as a legitimizing factor in exclusively operating multi-engine aircraft is flawed, as the likelihood of an engine failure doubles as does that of human error when maintaining a twin-engine fighter over a single-engine fighter. This is due to the doubling of maintenance work and human interference inherently involved in the maintenance and overhauling of engines. Consequently, twin-engine aircraft have experienced a greater number of class-A mishaps (an accident that costs more than $1 million, results in a fatality, or permanent disabling injury to personnel) than single-engine aircraft.  The counter argument of redundancy in case of emergency is ultimately flawed as well, as a catastrophic event would likely cause damage to, or destroy, both engines, especially if the catastrophic event was combat related in the view of General Renuart. [11]


Most recently, the Canadian government has expressed an interest in operating a mixed fleet of fixed-wing weapons platforms as means by which to expand and eventually transition the RCAF’s aging fleet into one that operates the familiar F/A -18 E/F Super Hornet alongside the aging CF-188 as an interim solution to the long overdue RCAF procurement question. Although this option presents itself as the most economical, it only does so superficially and on a short-term basis as noted recently by Canada’s Defence Minister who called the arrangement an ‘interim solution.’ In actuality, when an air force operates a plethora of different aircraft, maintenance, training, and spare parts, all need to be separately procured and accounted for; these costs are not inter-changeable, easily contributing to redundant over-expenditures. Thus, an artificial and unnecessary cost is created in the operation and maintenance of multiple aircraft types. “You could make the case that maybe you buy a small number of F-18 Super Hornets as a bridge, but that is a 15 year bridge [due to the 4.5 – 5th generation capability gap which includes susceptibility to enemy IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems)]; whilst the F-35 is a 40 year capability.”[12]  Ultimately, the Canadian defense budget is relatively small, as many individuals who oppose the procurement of military equipment rightly compare Canada’s limited financial situation with her neighbour to the south. Therefore, Canada cannot afford to unnecessarily spend money on the procurement of less-than-capable and potentially more expensive aircraft, or an ‘interim’ folly with a 15 year timeframe of relative capability before 4.5 generation aircraft such as the F/A- 18 E/F Super Hornet are easily destroyed by potential enemy IADS as General Gene Renuart (USAF, Ret.) explains:

“I could understand a mixed force if that was the choice… but with the small force like the Canadians have in their air force, a split force makes no sense logistically; it pushes the cost of both capabilities up high and creates gaps that you have to fill.”[13] Ultimately, 4.5 generation aircraft will time out (no longer be relevant) against the threats that we see developing. Canada will be forced to spend money again in a similar procurement process within 15 years to close another capability gap, possibly choosing the F-35 JSF at a later date. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to unnecessarily spend money on an interim solution when a long term solution exists in the F-35 JSF.[14] “Increasingly, a capability gap will exist between NATO nations and Canada [should Canada not upgrade to a 5th generation fighter]… The last thing we want to do is create an inoperability gap.”[15]


Therefore, the need for a multi-role weapons capable aircraft that provides an all-in-one package such as the F-35 JSF is necessary, so that it can perform any air combat role: from SEAD (Suppression of Air Defenses) and precision first-strike stealth attacks, to air-to-air engagements such as interdiction and interception, whilst communicating on a secure and inter-connected network with other elements within the Canadian military and allied forces in a process called fleet rationalization. “It is the inherent flexibility of air power—its responsiveness and its mobility—that will ensure its continued viability as a cornerstone of Canada’s defense forces.”[16]

THE COST: Reality versus Perception

In the United States, members of Congress have called the F-35 JSF, the “Trillion Dollar Fighter.” This figure is correct, but misleading. Congressional leaders have failed to identify the allocation of this gross sum of money, which innately generates discontent amongst the un-informed populous and other politicians, as the trillion dollar figure is misleadingly applied to assume only the procurement cost of the F-35. Ultimately, the aforementioned trillion dollar figure includes: research and development, the construction of 2,243 units to replace a large portion of the USAF, as well as the Navy and Marine Corps’ air-wings, to pay for the F-35’s fuel consumption, maintenance, spare engines, spare parts, upgrades, a process of concurrency during testing phases (which will include recalls), and weapons expenditure. This figure covers the aforementioned expenses from 2006 until the aircraft is supposed to be retired in 2065 throughout the aircraft’s 40-50 year lifespan taking inflation into account. In constant dollars from 2002 when the F-35 development began, the entire program from ‘cradle-to-grave’ would cost $417 billion through to 2065. The initially daunting trillion dollar figure appears to be taken out of context to pressure politicians (foreign and domestic) and civilian populations to oppose F-35 procurement. To provide context, in a half-century of military operation, the United States would be spending $4 trillion to maintain its current fleet until 2065 instead of replacing it with the F-35.[17]

On a brass tacks level, the F-35 currently costs $108 million USD per unit in Low Rate Production. When the F-35 enters full rate production, an F-35 will cost a predicted $85 million USD (substantially less than competing 4.5 generation alternatives) by 2019.[18]  The F-18 Super Hornet costs $65 million USD, Rafale $110 million USD, Eurofighter $125 million USD, and the F-22 which is no longer being manufactured, $150 million USD. An F/A-18 Super Hornet provides a notably shorter range, worse payload capacity, electronics package, and requires additional components such as targeting and electronic warfare pods to provide similar base line capability to the F-35. Additionally, the F-35 JSF program is being developed through a process of concurrency, where aircraft development and construction occurs simultaneously. Concurrency allows an aircraft fleet to be fielded, while maturing the production line, permitting a more comprehensive test program. Some skeptics would refer to concurrency as an expensive means by which to test and develop an aircraft, since multiple units would have to be recalled to fix issues found in an open test environment. Although, this expense has been accounted for within the previously agreed upon budget, only 0.5 per cent of procurement cost is allocated towards concurrency costs and upgrades.[19]


As per the 1997 JSF procurement agreement, corporate members of the Canadian Aerospace industry have more than $925 million in industrial opportunities already contracted, which is more than double Canada’s current investment in the F-35 program. Companies that have partnered with Lockheed Martin have the opportunity to produce and sustain components and systems to a fleet of aircraft that is expected to grow to more than 4,000 units. It is important to view the F-35 project not only as a military expenditure, but as an investment in the Canadian aerospace industry. There are more than 110 companies with $750 million contracted and $11 billion in opportunities available to Canadian companies and institutions over the life of the JSF partnership. Companies that have been involved in the development of the F-35 include: PCC Aerostructures, Magellan, Honeywell, Heroux-Devtek, FTG Aerospace, Centra Industries, Avcorp, Apex Industries, and ASCO Aerospace.[20]  The same agreement which has provided the Canadian Aerospace Industry with $925 million worth of stimulus, locking Canada into the already agreed upon procurement of F-35 JSF aircraft, would cost Canada $313 million dollars to rescind, which is more than Canada’s commitment to the JSF program to date.[21] Canada’s original plan was to purchase 65 F-35’s, creating one effective combat wing. At $85 million USD per aircraft at full-production costs, a 65 unit combat wing would cost the Canadian government $5.525 billion USD. Alternatively, if Canada were to purchase 65 Super Hornets, the costs would be negligibly cheaper, at a unit price of $65 million USD, totaling $4.225 billion USD, whilst losing the aforementioned contracts and contract opportunities. Canada has an opportunity not only to upgrade her aging fleet of fixed-wing weapons platforms to the most capable multi-role fighter in the world at a competitive price, but also to invest in the future of Canada’s aerospace industry; to obtain technological advantages which would otherwise be inaccessible, and potentially receive a return on their investment that would cover double the unit procurement costs of F-35 aircraft.


However, the F-35 JSF program has not been without its setbacks, which have been widely publicized, including: the size of integrated helmets causing bodily harm during ejection (which was resolved shortly after the problem was identified), multiple substantial delays, and rumors of poor performance during the aircraft’s initial stages of testing. Such reports on the F-35’s performance during the initial stages of testing, provided skeptics with superficial information that questioned the F-35’s combat capabilities. The test in question, was designed to “stress the high AoA (Angle of Attack) control laws during operationally representative maneuvers utilizing elevated AoAs and aggressive stick and pedal inputs.”[22] This means that the aircraft was placed in an incredibly disadvantaged position—pointing upwards in a stance of flying known as slow flight. The evaluation focused on the overall effectiveness of the aircraft in performing various specified maneuvers within this extreme utility envelope that forces the aircraft to perform in a sluggish manner. The criteria of the test was designed to ascertain whether the aircraft response would be “positive and predictable and that there should be no undesired, unexpected, or unpredictable aircraft responses.”[23] Pilots responded to the normal effects of slow flight: “the effect is abrupt, responsive, and powerful whereas pilot input seems to be sluggish and gradual. R4 (pilot response and suggested resolution): Consider increasing pilot yaw rate control authority.”[24] Therefore, the control surfaces behaved as designed and performed their job with minor adjustments to be made. So why was the test regarded as a failure of the weapons platform by skeptics? The result of the test was that of poor performance in extreme AoA’s. Ultimately the F-35 was put at a disadvantage, being placed in a scenario for which it was not designed. In doing so, the flight characteristics of the aircraft were adequately tested, but when challenged by a 4th generation F-16 from this position, the F-35 struggled. The aircraft struggled in a controlled environment in which it would not find itself during a live combat scenario due to the extreme position in which the F-35 was forced to fight during a controlled test.[25]

Flying at high angles of attack (AoA)—also known as “High Alpha”—fighter aircraft gain enhanced nose-pointing capability, allowing pilots to find, fix and target enemy aircraft. The F-35’s high AoA testing pushed the jet to its AoA limit of 50 degrees nose high and included beyond both positive and negative maximum command limits. Test pilots flying in the stealthy clean wing configuration also tested it with externally-mounted air-to-air pylons and missiles, and also with open weapons bay doors, all creating additional drag, thus slowing the aircraft, creating a less aerodynamic platform. Test pilots took the aircraft beyond this limit to evaluate its characteristics in recovering from out-of-control flight conditions, not to operate normally. Although, whilst AoA is critical for maneuvering, the days of actually closing with the target, that is, rolling and turning to get behind your opponent, are becoming dated. That is why the F-22 and F-35 were made to be stealthy. Stealth provides US and allied pilots the “first-shot-first-kill” advantage as most engagements occur from beyond visual range (BVR), without being detected. Since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, a steadily increasing number of air-to-air victories have been achieved BVR, as the last aerial gun-to-gun kill was recorded in 1988.[26]

To conclude, Canada cannot afford to delay the procurement of its next fighter aircraft any longer as maintenance becomes more difficult, accidents will become more frequent, and a wider capability gap is constantly expanding.  Canada cannot afford to make the wrong decision and waste Canadian tax dollars, and it cannot afford to back out of the F-35 JSF contract in wasting $313 million. The next RCAF fixed-wing weapons platform is one that has already been decided by the Canadian government—a decision that was made with military capability and fiscally responsible economics in mind in 1997. Frankly, the F-35 has been plagued with delays (which is reasonable when creating cutting edge technology), although misinformation, and the removal of context from the financial discussion have been utilized as scare tactics to influence the F-35’s procurement. Canada has a unique opportunity to procure the relatively cost-effective, cutting edge aircraft they were promised in 1997, whilst providing some stimulus to the Canadian aerospace industry, and remaining a relevant global air power for at least half a century. Ultimately, the purchase of ‘interim’ aircraft will provide Canada with a maximum 15 year window to decide on its next procurement—an endeavour that will end in the unnecessary expense of tax dollars with no operational benefit. Canada is not alone in the procurement of the F-35: Israel, Turkey, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, and Singapore are all partners with Lockheed Martin similar to Canada. Recently, discussion about a competition was tabled by the Canadian government; Japan has already conducted this competition, culminating in a decision to buy the F-35A. As air forces across the globe begin to fly the same aircraft (in the F-35), allies can take advantage of advanced fighter technologies and inherent interoperability whilst leveraging economies of scale to enhance affordability. Ultimately, the Canadian government could lose a multi-faceted and beneficial procurement opportunity due to campaign promises. The resulting decision or indecision regarding Canada’s next fixed-wing weapons platform could place Canadian pilots, equipment and tax dollars at greater risk, in ignoring the lessons of previous aviation procurements.