What It Really Means If Canada Ditches America's F-35

Photo: Lockheed Martin

Canada’s plan to consider ditching its order for American F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will have huge military and political repercussions.First Canada must choose between the fifth-generation F-35 and various foreign early generation jet fighters to replace its ageing CF-18 fleet.

Canada had narrowed its options down to the Dassault Rafale, British Aerospace Eurofighter, Saab Gripen, and the Boeing F-18 F/A Super Hornet.

Click here to see the competition >

Ditching the U.S.model could lead to interoperability issues, however, between Canadian and U.S. forces. Jacob Stokes from the centre for a New American Security told us this ability to communicate over shared platforms aboard the F-35 will have to be accomplished in other ways.

“Those problems can be overcome later with retrofitting and other interoperability programs, but such retrofits are never going to be as easy as flying the same planes,” Stokes says by email. “The question then becomes, is the retrofit cheap enough to justify going with another model, or do you simply bypass the need for high level of interoperability?”

But those are just military questions. From a political angle, Canada’s choice could be even more explosive.

The U.S. and Canada have done a pretty spectacular job of working together over the years despite a fair share of deep differences, but the news that Canada is looking at non F-35 fighters sent ripples through defence communities in the U.S. and around the world.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Canada’s defence spending has increased from about $13 billion in 1999 to nearly $25 billion in 2012, giving lots of business to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and more.

It’s a far cry from the more than  $700 billion spent every year by the U.S., but few Canadians want to compete with the States on that front. 

Canada’s defence spending is about equal to Germany in percentage of its GDP and that makes it the 13th largest military spender in the world and the 6th largest spender in NATO.

The cost is clearly a concern, but to many Canadians the price comes second to concerns that their country is getting bullied by the U.S. and being forced to share a warmongering path they have no interest in pursuing.

Canada was given a $9 billion estimate on the batch of F-35 they ordered from Lockheed, which ballooned up to $40 billion over the life of the plane. An amount not exactly twice the country’s entire defence budget, but pretty close. If Canada does officially reject the F-35 and the units do not get picked up elsewhere, the plane will become even more costly for every other country signed up to buy them.

Larry Birns, Director of Washington-based of Council on Hemispheric Affairs says the impact of Canada’s potential F-35 refusal is bigger than anyone can actually say at the moment.

Saab GripenSaab Gripen

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Birns explains, “Canadian politics are much more polarised than U.S. politics — there is a … movement in Canada and people who belong to that movement who accuse the U.S. of being warmongers, and who don’t like deals with the U.S.”

“You have a lot of elements at work here.” Birns continued via a phone interview. “It’s all part of a push-pull arrangement. Where we are right now the decision has been made to move back the [F-35] commitment and it may even be more drastic than we think.”

How drastic no one can say, but not only will Lockheed Martin and the U.S. have to make the F-35 far more palatable to the majority of Canadian voters, they’ll now have to compete with other contractors.

No doubt sales reps for foreign companies will be doing everything they can to make the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter look even less attractive to Canadian defence officials.

As Canada weighs its other fighter options, we’ve analysed what they’re likely looking at to replace the high-profile, high-tech, and highly-expensive F-35.

The following slides offer a look at the most likely contenders.

Sweden's Saab Gripen has a top speed of Mach 2 — faster than Lockheed's F-35 top speed of Mach 1.6

The Gripen also has air refueling capabilities, a must for Canada, and mounts any NATO weapon or piece of electronics

With increased fuel capacity, a more powerful engine, cutting-edge (AESA) radar, helmet optics and a beefier weapons payload — the Saab is fit to take on the F-35

The Saab is not stealth, however, though it uses non-radar reflective materials wherever possible

Ditching stealth the Saab has far more flexibility in weapons mounting and offers far more versatility that the F-35

Saab jets are designed to operate without a proper air base and can take off and land on 800 meters of two laned snow covered highway

At well under $100 million apiece and the lowest operating cost of any fighter in the world at $4,700 an hour the Gripen is cost-effective and competent

Another option for Canada would be the Eurofighter Typhoon

Also not stealth with external weapons, the Typhoon tops out at about Mach 2

The Typhoon is flown by Austria, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and the United Kingdom

At about $200 million per plane and $18,000 per flying hour the Typhoon is not cheap

Though expensive, the Typhoon would be compatible with most weapons in the NATO arsenal

A third option for Canada is the French Dassault Rafale twin-engine fighter

The Rafale is equipped to receive many types of weapons and has 14 points of attachment and two 30mm cannons

Capable of speeds up to Mach 1.8 and a range of 2300 miles the Rafale combines the best of both the Saab and the Eurofigther

At up to $125 million apiece and $16,500 an hour to operate, the Rafale is used only by France who manufactures it and India

The other F-35 alternative is the F/A-18 Super Hornet — a multirole fighter capable of Mach 1.8 that is really just an upgrade from Canada's current CF-18 Hornet fleet

The Super Hornet would have the advantage of a low learning curve as Canada's pilots are already fluent in the Hornet

Withe AESA radar and cutting-edge avionics the F-18 Super Hornet is a true 4.5 generation fighter -- not 5th gen. like the F-35, but also fewer maintenance and design issues

The F-18 Super Hornet is a proven fighter with proven fights over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya

All that aside — the F-18 is an old design, lacks agility, and is restricted to a 1,300 mile combat range

The F-18 carries just 11 hardpoints for attaching external weapons and has only one 20mmm cannon

On top of its $67 million per plane cost the Super Hornet runs anywhere from $11,000 to $24,000 per hour to fly

Of course, the F-35 is what each of those other planes will be compared against

In addition to its 5th generation stealth capabilities — Lockheed says the F-35 will be the most effective air-to-air and air-to-ground fighter ever produced

The list of problems plaguing the F-35 is as long, however, as its major technological innovations

The F-35 has a maximum speed of Mach 1.6 and a range of over 1,200 miles

Though it can be refueled to extend that range indefinitely

To maintain its stealth the F-35 carries the majority of its ordnance inside the belly of the plane

The F-35 combines cutting edge avionics with a helmet mounted display system that brings a whole new level of interaction between pilot and plane

The cockpit hosts a direct voice input system and a full panoramic cockpit display

All the F-35's software is coded in C++ for the quickest development possible

Once all its problems are addressed the cheapest F-35 will run $150 million plus and the cost of maintenance is still not really known — cost per hour of operation will run from $21,000 to $31,000

No matter what Canada decides to do it faces some tough decisions

Those are Canada's most likely alternatives, but it could look East to China

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