The below is the final student essay from our inaugural “Langley Hope Academic Excellence in Security and Defence Commentary Award Programme.”
So why does Canada need a fighter aircraft like the F-35 anyway? Behind the usual generic answers of defending Canadian sovereignty there are actually distinct policy and operational reasons that require Canada to adopt a next-generation fighter such as the F-35, but due to a number of reasons the issue has become politicized, requiring address if Canada is achieve its defence and foreign policy goals in the future.
In the latest policy report from the Department of National Defence (DND) entitled “Strong, Secure, Engaged” some of the main policy and operational reasons Canada requires a next generation fighter like the F-35 were explained. To strategically maintain Canada’s military strength in relation to other international actors, the Canadian military requires an aircraft with stealth-like capabilities and next generation aerial sensors that are able to effectively counter modern threats such as anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) surface-to-air weapons.On top of this, due to its vast geography the Canadian military requires the capability of a fighter aircraft to deploy anywhere in Canada on short notice for strategic purposes such as force protection and ensuring the defence of Canadian airspace.
As Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland stated in her foreign policy speech from the summer of 2017, an important part of Canadian continental security strategy is supporting NORAD, the aerospace defence partnership between Canada and the United States.To support this alliance that directly contributes to Canadian defence (which becomes ever more important as the Canadian arctic opens up as a possible trade route), the Canadian military will require fighter aircraft that are compatible and technologically equal with the United States for decades to come if the Canadian government wants to meaningfully contribute to NORAD, especially in the context of President Trump’s recent concerns with membership “free riding” in alliances such as NATO.Lastly if the Canadian government wants to engage in international partnerships such as NATO and use them to advance Canada’s other policy priorities in areas such national security, the support of Canadian foreign policy objectives abroad and cooperative trading partners, it will need a fighter like the F-35 to prevent future Canadian contributions from being obsolete.
As early as 2006 DND had assessed that the F-35 was likely the most capable and lowest costing option to meet Canadian security objectives at home and abroad.By 2010 DND had developed a Statement of Operational Requirements (SOR) that listed 28 specifications wanted for Canada’s next fighter aircraft, of which 6 of these specifications (such as stealth capabilities and modern sensors) could only be met by the F-35.Unfortunately this promising next-generation fighter was shortly afterwards to become a political landmine.A major event that caused the F-35 acquisition to become such a sensitive issue was the 2011 Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) Report that projected the F-35 as costing $168 million USD per plane, as opposed to the projection of close to the $86 million USD per plane they eventually cost in reality.This miscalculation was because the PBO was not given access to DND resources related to the project and therefore could not properly take into account economies of scale and production learning that would dramatically reduce costs.* But it was the Conservative Party’s portrayal of the F-35 as part of their party’s support for the military that firmly politicalized F-35 procurement and caused the Liberals to outright oppose Canada’s acquisition of F-35s in the 2015 election on vague political grounds of pursuing a more peaceful and transparent defence policy, instead of opposing the aircraft on its capabilities.
Even though the Liberals have opposed the F-35, they have realized Canada requires a replacement for the RCAF’s ageing F-18s that by the time they will be phased out in the late 2020s, will have served in the RCAF for close to 50 years. Unfortunately even the Liberal government’s attempt to solve this issue has hit roadblocks, with attempts to acquire the Boeing’s Super Hornet ruined due to unperceived costs ($120 million USD per aircraft) and a politically charged trade dispute between Bombardier and Boeing, as well as reports that the Canadian government is considering penalizing American aircraft bids in retaliation for the recent U.S. government trade disputes with the Canadian government.Although DND is planning to acquire 25 used Australian Super Hornets to fill the “capability gap” and is running a design competition featuring the F-35, Super Hornet, Rafael, Typhoon and Gripen, all but the F-35 bring up questions of meeting all of DND’s operational requirements, with the last three begging questions of their compatibility with NORAD.
To prevent the delay of Canada’s next fighter jet further, the Trudeau government should pursue two strategies that aim to depoliticize the issue of fighter jet procurement in Canada. First the Trudeau government should educate Canadians as to why their country requires a fighter jet with next-generation capabilities that meets its publically stated defence and foreign policy objectives through effectively contributing to alliances such as NORAD and NATO. Second if the F-35 fairly and transparently presents itself to still be the most appropriate long-term choice for Canadian requirements, the Trudeau government needs to have the fortitude to pursue this acquisition and not choose a politically easier option that could negatively impact Canada’s international alliances, policy priorities and our ability to tackle evolving issues such as the arctic for decades to come.
*Adjusted to 2017 costs for inflation.