It has been more than a decade of the Canadian fighter procurement fiasco which has shown this nation’s inability to procure a new jet to replace the ones I started flying nearly 40 years ago. I always knew that the Boeing Super Hornet was the airplane that the F-35 had to beat and which, in many respects, controlled the narrative in Canada…incumbent, fan favorite after so many years, easy answer because it was ‘good enough’ and a great story of the industrial benefits with so much Boeing commercial airplane work in Canada. Only the naïve thought that the F-35 would have an easy time winning in Canada. Lockheed Martin long ago had adopted the “Hope is a Process” strategy and was willing to let the clock run out on this competition and hope that they would win.
And then Boeing got kicked out for failing competition requirements.
I know enough about how this to appreciate that it was not Boeing who failed that team. The company had so much on the line to motivate a strong effort. The production line in St Louis needed to be kept alive and the competitions in Canada and Finland represented big numbers, 88 and 64 jets, respectively. In each of those countries, as the incumbent, they had strong in-country support and should have made it hard for F-35 to win. But these teams include US government representatives who are actually the ones who submit the bid on behalf of the ‘team’. PMA 265 is the office in US Naval Air Systems Command who works these international programs. Unlike the Boeing folks, these staff officers have no skin in the game and do not necessarily care one way or the other whether Boeing or Super Hornet wins. In this case, failing to meet the requirements where Boeing builds a bigger, better, and newer version of the airplane Canada it is hoped to replace must mean that the Super Hornet team did not respond correctly or make certain that they were replying with exactly what Canada stated as a need. By any measure, that $19 Billion mistake will be costly over time. You can be certain that the Boeing team did everything they could to win this…their team partners?…not so much. I will miss the debates with my good friends from Boeing…they were entertaining on many levels…. especially those with Ricardo Traven, former RCAF Hornet pilot, former Super Hornet Chief Test Pilot, great Super Hornet airshow pilot and formidable defender of all things Super Hornet.
So, what now for F-35?
Pivot time – The F-35 program needs to start telling the compelling story about the economic benefits of the F-35 partnership and the number of jobs, jobs, jobs created by being part of a franchise program that will build more than 3000 airplanes over the next many decades. In the Trudeau post-pandemic period, the Liberal government wants to build the economy of the future. The F-35 team should be aligned with the message:
“Canada’s global competitiveness is completely dependent on digital and technology transformation. Canada has been lagging for the past decade and needs to take action now.”
The F-35 failures in Canada have never been about technology or capability but instead about a failure to communicate. No matter how professional the messaging has been, it failed to sway Canadians about what the F-35 brings to industry and the economy. The F-35 team spent so much energy talking about capability and fending off Boeing’s soundbites about 1 versus 2 engines, cost, and Super Hornet compatibility with the legacy Hornet, that they were never able to get the message across about how lucrative and sustaining the work on the F-35 program will be. While F-35 has failed to communicate that economic story to date, the program, in fact, has been driving that very digital and technology transformation I mentioned, now and into the future. The companies that contribute to F-35, from Delta, BC to the Maritimes have been a part of this solution for more than a decade. Today, F-35 suppliers employ 1,500 jobs even before the jet is bought by Canada, and that number will grow to more than 5,000 when the jets arrive and will total more than 150,000 over the lifetime of the program. Even during the pandemic, the F-35 program kept Canadian subcontractors alive. Lockheed Martin accelerated funding to Canadian suppliers during the pandemic, ahead of schedule, keeping F-35 suppliers whole with funding to work through the hardest of times. In the category of “Trusted Partners”, Canada has to look at Lockheed Martin and the F-35 program in a very good light.
The F-35 partnership gives the opportunity for Canadian companies to contribute to the building of 3000+ airplanes on a production schedule that is projected out beyond 2045, spanning a generation of work. This enduring opportunity will keep Canadian firms at the very forefront of technology for many decades. As the F-35 program grows beyond the partnership and jets are sold to more countries, so will the requirement for more work from each of the contracts. With Canada’s investment of $600M USD, Canada companies have captured more than $2.7B USD in contracts to date. Unfortunately, Canadian companies have been frozen out of bidding for sustainment work on the F-35 while the government fumbles around with their procurement disaster. Canadian industry could be competing and capturing work today to maintain the rapidly expanding fleet of F-35s in North America.
Once Canada commits to procuring the jet, Canadian companies can bid for sustainment work including the potential for cross-border maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) where US firms will not have the capacity to handle all that will be required to service the massive US F-35 fleet over the many years to come. Companies like CAE and L3 Harris stand to benefit handsomely when / if the decision is made in favor of F-35. The Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) needs to come together as a whole, now that Boeing is no longer a conflict, and lobby on behalf of the F-35 program. There needs to be a strong message telling the government what this generational opportunity brings to the Canadian aerospace industry. They also need to do their part educating the public after sitting silent for so long. AIAC, like the best of anything Canadian, were the ultimate fence-sitters, not committing to one team or the other. That needs to change.
Do the Math – 3000+ or 88
The decision from this point on can commit Canada to be a part of a franchise program of more than 3000 airplanes that spans decades of the highest technology jobs possible in aerospace. Canada can be aligned with the US and protect the arctic alongside the 54 F-35s based permanently at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska.
If Canada chooses to go with Saab and buy the Gripen E, industrial benefits will not be seen for 4-5 years as the contracts are negotiated, facilities built or modified and work finally shows up. The first Canadian Gripen jets would be built in Sweden, not Canada. At some point, Gripen would be assembled in Canada and once the 88 total is complete, that industry would atrophy and the near-term benefits to the work force would end. Industry spikes for the short run of airplane assembly would fade quickly.
What has not been discussed is what happens with a Gripen fleet in North America, building and operating an orphan fleet which would have to function alone in the western world, without support except from a company, thousands of miles away across the Atlantic ocean. The cost of shipping parts alone would keep UPS, FedEx, Purolator, and DHL in business for the lifetime of that fleet. The good serviceability number that Gripen brags about would crumble when the parts needed were stuck in the global supply change problems that we see today. Saab and the short term ITB proposal asks Canada to bet on a company that has zero track record in Canada. Even more importantly for this nation’s safeguarding, how could Canada trust a non-NATO nation believing that they would support Canada in wartime. I just don’t see airplane parts coming out of Sweden when all hell breaks loose.
Another ‘So What?’ What is the harm of not picking F-35?
The Liberal government could go with Saab and the Gripen, anyone who knows the history of Canadian military procurement and especially this particular government knows that anything is possible. The Liberals could cancel Canada’s participation in the F-35 partnership…remember the EH-101 helicopter saga. What would happen? When an official withdrawal from the F-35 partnership is announced, the F-35 program will immediately take action. Contracts with Canadian firms would be cancelled promptly, and the work shifted to overseas countries where their firms are hungry and eager to be a part of the F-35 program. Doubt that this would happen? Ask the Turkish aerospace industries that have lost a generational opportunity to contribute to advancing their capabilities and technologies…. Crushed.
Boeing is gone. For Lockheed Martin, this is a chance to recover and pivot the attention on the economy and the 150,000 jobs that will come from being a part of the F-35 program. I think the industrial benefits from buying 88 or participating in the building of more than 3000 airplanes would seem like easy math to me…but remember that this is Canada.