On October 19, Canada experienced a political sea change when the Liberal party won national elections and ended the Conservative party’s nine-year grip on power.
Among the numerous changes that this will bring is the country’s likely withdrawal from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program. Although Ottawa has yet to officially leave history’s most expensive weapons project, incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to cancel Canada’s participation in the program.
Canada is member of NATO and a close US ally. Its withdrawal from the program will have ramifications for the other F-35 partner countries, as a recent Defence News report outlined. Canada was expected to buy 65 planes, so its decision to leave the program will end up raising costs for every other aircraft in production. Canada would be the first country to leave the project, according to Defence News.
“If any partner or any service moves aeroplanes to the right or takes aeroplanes out, the price of the aeroplane” will rise, US Lt. Gen. Christopher C. Bogdan, the chief of the F-35 Joint Program Office, told US lawmakers on October 21, as Defence News recounts. “We have estimated that the increase in price to everyone else is about 0.7 to one per cent [or] about $US1 million a copy for everybody else.”
That means that every other nation currently on track to buy the F-35 — Australia, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, the UK, the US, Israel, Japan, and South Korea — will now face higher costs. But according to Defence News, this does not appear to have had any impact on other nation’s F-35 orders.
There is no indication that the other countries buying the F-35 will change their purchases or numbers based upon Canada’s possible withdrawal from the program. The rise in cost of $US1 million per plane is relatively insubstantial compared to the overall price increases that the program has suffered to so far, an unnamed British fighter-industry executive pointed out to Defence News.
“If the only problem the F-35 had was that the aircraft was $US1 million more expensive, they wouldn’t have a problem,” he said. “The problem is the aircraft is tens of millions of dollars more than they originally told people it would be, and that’s just the acquisition price. It’s the sustainment cost that will destroy air forces.”
Still, even with Canada pulling out of the program, costs of the F-35 will likely fall in the long term as production of the aircraft becomes more efficient, according to The Fiscal Times. Each plane now costs an estimated $US108 million, according to Lockheed, and prices are expected to fall to $US85 million per plane by 2019 if Canada stays in the program.
And even if the aircraft’s costs remain astronomically high, the F-35 program is too large and global for Canada’s potential ditching of the aircraft to affect production and procurement. According to The Fiscal Times, the Lockheed program uses 2,000 subcontractors around the world.
Additionally, the trillion dollar program is deeply ingrained within the US. Every US state except for Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska, and Wyoming have economic ties to the F-35. An additional 18 states have over $US100 million in economic activity linked to the program.
In the long run even the US is not expected to be able to afford every F-35 that it is currently planning on purchasing.
At the moment, the US is expecting to buy 2,443 F-35s over the program’s procurement. But “there is a very low chance that we will buy all the F-35s we are planning,” senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments Todd Harrison told The Fiscal Times, citing budgetary constraints.
Canada’s likely withdrawal from the F-35 program comes on the heels of additional technical problems for the often-troubled plane. Recent tests have shown that pilots under 200 pounds are at a serious risk of fatal injury during low-speed ejections from the plane due to combined issues with the ejection seat and the weight of the plane’s helmet.
Additionally, a report from an F-35 pilot in June detailed how the new plane is less manoeuvrable than the F-16 fighter that it was built to replace. This resulted in the F-35 underperforming during a mock dogfight with the earlier plane.
The F-35 has also encountered issues with its engines, its next-generation helmet, and its onboard software system. The F-35B variety which the US Marine Corps will fly is also not expected to be equipped to carry the plane’s most advanced weapons until 2022.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives previously warned that the F-35 was unsuited for Canadian use due to the performance of the aircraft’s single engine compared to more longstanding twin engine aircraft designs and the country’s vast swathes of uninhabited Arctic. If an F-35 suffered engine failure in these environments, it’s unclear what a Canadian pilot’s backup plan would be — they’d likely only have a few days to live after ejecting into an Arctic environment.
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