28 March was a good day for the RCAF and the Canadian Armed Forces as a whole. The commitment to F-35 represents much more than just picking a new fighter and it is worth taking a pause to appreciate that this saga finally has come to a close. The soap opera out-lived almost anyone ever involved with the program; there are only a few of us still here having survived all the years from beginning to this decision. There will be lots of essays, Op Ed’s and postmortems written reflecting on the history and the many twists and turns along the way.
What really matters is that Canada got it right…period.
I elected to ‘come home’ from Munich, Germany and leave my very charmed life as a Eurofighter Typhoon test pilot in 2003 after LM won the Joint Strike Fighter competition. I gave up a great life in Bavaria for Fort Worth, Texas, pickup trucks and cowboys, all for the chance to fly F-35 someday. My test pilot career would never have been validated if F-35 hadn’t been picked for Canada. I would have fallen short of my career goals if the RCAF had ended up with a different jet and my father would have crawled out of his grave to haunt me for not having tried hard enough to seal the deal in Canada. For once, I bet on the right horse.
As I said, this decision eclipses just buying a new fighter. So many times, over so many years, the Canadian government procurement system has failed the men and women of the Canadian Armed Forces. All of us veterans know the tales of bad decisions, political interference and substandard kit given to men and women who have to make it work while other countries were smart enough to buy the equipment needed to do their missions. Seldom has Canada bought the right equipment at the right time.
Canadians are always hesitant to be number one; we are so used to compromising and getting something that is not quite ‘ready for primetime’. Canadian fighter pilots will certainly be sent into combat in the future, and they need a fighter that can survive and kill the enemy. The Ukraine invasion has shown us that highly contested war theatres exist. Civilians now believe what warriors have been telling them for years…that real evil exists.
The F-35 decision brings enormous relief to our American brethren for the security of North America and the NORAD alliance. Seamless interoperability enables fitting USAF and RCAF F-35s together to protect the continent and to contribute to the larger multi-domain matrix of assets looking north into the Arctic and Russia as well as West towards Asia Pacific and China. F-35 for Canada now lets the architects of NOARD modernization move forward knowing we all have the right pieces to contribute to the new construct.
The future NATO standard is 5th Gen and F-35, not some plussed up 4th Gen aircraft on its last upgrade iteration which would become tactically irrelevant in the coming years. We will all be playing by the new standard defined by stealth, sensor fusion, seamless interoperability and the quantum leap in capability that comes with F-35. NATO nations will learn how to employ F-35 and leverage its capabilities in a Joint manner to enhance the other military services. Deterrence against Russia? Any of us who have flown F-35 will attest that a war of 5th Gen NATO assets against Russia would be a disastrous move by Putin. The F-35 really is as lethal as promised.
Canada 2 Eyes and 5 Eyes
The longer that the decision on a new fighter was delayed, the more the patience of our close partner alliances was being tried. How was Canada to be taken seriously by the US and other 5 Eyes partners when we couldn’t take protection of our own country seriously? At least we have restored the intent to contribute and be part of the ‘Have’s’ instead of being relegated to being the ‘Have Not’s’. The Canadian Armed Forces has a long way to go replenishing aging equipment across the 3 services, but the F-35 decision was always going to be a central to our intent to take our military commitment seriously.
F-35 Changes All
The mission sets that come with F-35, from Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) to Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses (DEAD) to employment of new smart weapons are all new to the RCAF fighter force. New 5th Gen weapons are needed to maximize the capability of the 5th Gen platform. New flying areas (ranges) are needed so that the true capabilities can be exercised in peacetime and not limit the F-35 to flying around like legacy 4th Gen platforms. F-35 is an order of magnitude more capable, survivable and lethal than any fighter in history and its potency will not be appreciated by RCAF pilots or leaders until they start flying it for real in a couple of years. And yes, I said lethality, a term I avoided using for more than a decade when dealing with Canada and the new fighter conversation. Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine has taught us all how important survivability is with very lethal surface-to-air missile (SAM) defenses as well as how critical it is that our fighters have the lethality to kill those SAM systems to then permit our fighters to eliminate the attacking army ground forces and naval threats. We are done talking about asymmetric warfare and back to realizing that large scale conflicts are a reality even for non-warring nations like Canada.
The news about F-35 and whining about the decision, the saga and which political party was responsible will die off soon. We have seen this pattern in other NATO nations where F-35 was controversial right up until the decision was taken by the government in power; and then the press and public moved on to the next news cycle and next crisis.
Bravo to Saab and their efforts to bring Gripen E into the conversation. They read the RFP and focused their proposal and response on exactly what was asked for. Boeing was sloppy and arrogant and was eliminated based on poor staffing. For Saab, there logically was never really a chance to win for many, many reasons. There were zero RCAF fighter pilots, zero RCAF technical experts and zero RCAF leadership who supported the Swedish proposal. But the ground swell of supporters on Facebook groups and blogs written by Swedes showed that Saab knew how to focus on the ground game. I suspect that they took the elimination of the Boeing Super Hornet for technical reasons as endorsement of their own aircraft. However, Boeing being kicked out of the competition and Saab being allowed to continue only meant that Saab had not failed to meet the specifications; never that Saab was suitable for Canada’s needs. It happened often in the past for LM and F-35 in Canada that we (when I was with LM) heard what we wanted to hear and not what was being said. Well done by Saab betting on long odds and doing their best to compete as the underdog.
The final step in the process is for LM and the US government to complete the negotiations leading to signing of the contract. Although the journalists make it sound like there is something special about this phase, these contract negotiations happen for each and every competition around the world. F-35 is no different. This is not the first rodeo for Lockheed Martin, the F-35 Enterprise or the US government. They will collectively close this out…period.
LM is exceptionally good at sealing the deal.
Canadians won with this decision. The future of arctic sovereignty, the legitimacy of Canada as a military force, and the recognition by our adversaries that we do take ourselves and our place in the world seriously are all byproducts of F-35 coming to Canada.
For a long time, I have been the only Canadian to fly F-35…I look forward to those RCAF fighter pilots joining me as Lightning II pilots soon.