February 2022 marks 20 years since Canada joined the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) partnership.  Globe and Mail Article

For all the many twists and turns since, there has been one constant positive, the contribution to Canada’s aerospace industry. The JSF program promised a revolutionary approach to manufacturing, lean assembly, low procurement costs, astonishing fighter capability and so much more.  Over time, the program has faced unprecedented scrutiny from politicians, media and public, not just at home in the U.S. but internationally from customer nations.  Watching the F-35 program has fostered an entire generation of arm-chair quarterbacks to snipe at every tidbit of JSF news. Yet the program has marched on.  JSF started slow (not as was promised) and ran into many, many problems, like every new aircraft program in history.  At some point, things picked up pace.  The aircraft matured over the decade-long developmental testing and the jet started to gain a following, starting with the warriors who flew it every day.  The most conservative estimate of the F-35 program would have missed the mark predicting where the aircraft numbers would be at this point in time, 20 years later.  My own career path for F-35 was delayed year upon year as the program stumbled early on.  However, this train is now heading down the track and won’t be stopped.  The F-35 works…period.

What is really impressive is the depth and breadth of industrial work that was spread out to the partner nations. Canadian companies clearly had a head start in capturing choice business opportunities, a function of their capabilities and potential to spool-up to the high-pressure standards demanded for this aircraft.  It certainly did not hurt Canadian companies to be so close to the U.S. border where the logistics trail is relatively short. Through the years, Canadian industry has maintained its preferential position as a JSF partner, especially interesting since Canada has yet to buy the jet.

There was a healthy aerospace industry in Canada before JSF but certainly not on the scale it is now. Building the most complex aerospace vehicle in history demanded a transformation of manufacturing standards required for every component in the F-35 to a level of precision not known before.

What Does F-35 Bring to Canadian Industry?

F-35 will generate 150,000 jobs over the lifetime of the program in Canada.  That is high skillset, high tech, digital transformation work which spans the country.  Already more than 200+ men and women in the Maritimes are employed supporting F-35 work bringing nearly $1B to its aerospace sector over the life of F-35.  Jobs in Montreal at Heroux-Devtek and PCC Aerostructures, plus Pratt and Whitney Canada contribute to F-35.  From Ottawa to Hamilton to Winnipeg to BC, Canadians contribute to this new generation of fighters, working now and for decades to come. The opportunities that come to the F-35 suppliers, tangent to this work but in large part due to the capabilities developed to support F-35, bring even more business to these companies.

$611M USD has been invested by the Canadian government into the F-35 program with $2.8B USD in contracts let thus far.  That’s a very healthy ROI for the government to contribute to the aerospace work force, especially through the pandemic when work might have been interrupted or cancelled in any other major development program.

Digital transformation is required to keep Canada competitive into the future.  As a nation, Canada has lagged except in this area of industry.  F-35 has brought Canadian companies to the forefront of aerospace technology over the past 10+ years and will keep pushing them for years to come.

Forget the guaranteed offset contracts that would have resulted in building hubcaps and steering wheels to satisfy the ITB requirements.  Canadian firms have captured the contracts, elevated their capabilities to maintain the standards demanded for the 5th Generation stealth fighter and will keep that work for years to come. At some point the story will be heard by the Canadian public of how strong the employment and industrial benefits have been as part of the F-35 program.

The “A Word”

Canadian industry has not been involved in an aerospace program of this magnitude since…. the Avro Arrow…hence the reference to the “A Word”.  BTW…don’t worry…no one with any sense is talking about redesigning the Arrow…. The scale of this franchise program, 3000+ F-35s, built across decades, is extraordinary.  The 5th Gen revolution of this stealth fighter brings enduring, generational work for those aerospace companies fortunate enough to earn their place in the F-35 program.

It would have been much easier for the F-35 industry partners had the development and testing gone smoothly and the program evolved quickly, as initially promised…we all know that did not go well.  Over promised and under-delivered is the reality of the early days of F-35.  Yet things turned around as much because everyone refused to give up and worked so hard to rectify / correct / redesign / accomplish the miracles needed to fix the problems and get the program and jet on a timeline that worked.  Industry partners invested millions upon millions in infrastructure early on only to find out that the real work and payoff was going to take a lot longer to happen than anyone had predicted.  Humility came late to F-35.

There were missteps but leadership from the U.S. government and Lockheed Martin helped save this program.  Getting to that steady state level that businesses built their JSF model on years ago took so long.  And it is almost here now, enduring work in Canada from Delta, British Columbia across the country to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.  The wait is not quite over yet; it will be a couple of months until Canada finally commits to buy the F-35 and stability comes to the Canadian aerospace industry.

This is not Socialism

Without the Liberal government commitment to the F-35, there is always a chance that another fighter could be selected, the ultimate longshot, the Swedish Saab Gripen, still in testing, built in small numbers but the PR darling of this fighter competition. If Canada ever did decide to select another fighter, F-35 work across the country would collapse and all the contracts would end as soon as the work could be sent overseas.  The many other F-35 customer nations would love the choice, generational aerospace business that Canada has been hogging for so long.  Would F-35 really take the business and contracts elsewhere?  Ask Turkey and the near collapse of their aerospace industry when F-35 was cancelled by the U.S. government.  The work in Turkey is gone and will not be returning. Picking the Gripen and rejecting the F-35 would have a result much like happened to Canadian aerospace with the Avro Arrow, a collapse of the aerospace industry that would take a generation to repair…sorry, the “A Word” again.

Let’s be clear, there is no free lunch.  To take a passage from my friend Tom Burbage, the architect of so much of this program and former Lockheed Martin F-35 Program General Manager:

“Canada was the first ally to join the F-35 program in February of 2002. Implicit in the economic development and technology transfer commitment on the part of the F-35 industry team was an expected commitment on the part of the Government to buy the F-35. I led the search for Canadian businesses that wanted to receive the economic benefits of the F-35 program. Nearly twenty years later, with Billions in industrial contracts but no commitment to procurement, one must question the real original intent of joining the program. Canada, our closest ally, is the only participating partner country to fail to follow through in this commitment.”

Is there really an alternative to the F-35 as Canada’s next fighter? With the Boeing Super Hornet excluded, some still think that the diminutive fighter, the Swedish Gripen, could serve Canada’s needs.  As time rolls on, Canadians are getting more educated on the Saab Gripen and less enthused about it as they learn that the marketing hype is just that, hype.  The 4th Gen fighter cannot match what F-35 brings to Canada for sovereignty protection or the interoperability needed for NATO support.  It is the last, best flip phone in a word of iPhones if you recall my blog and analogy published month ago.

What Have We Missed Out On?

The F-35 procurement delay as prevented Canadian firms from bidding on sustainment work for F-35s, not just those that would have come to Canada but also the U.S. and worldwide fleet.  The almost 2500 F-35s for the American services will outgrow the capacity that is available in the U.S. to maintain and overhaul those jets over time. Canadian MRO facilities are perfectly situated to win some of those support contracts that will be offered to help offset the capacity limits of American depots.  Montreal-based companies like CAE and L3 MAS want their turn to bid on sustainment work, once Canada commits.  The offset value of the near $19B F-35 procurement contract will certainly be exceeded over time by all the work that will be done in Canada.

Happy Anniversary

Where would Canadian aerospace business be if Alan Williams (remember that name?) and the Liberal government had not taken the bold step to commit to the JSF program early on?  2 decades later, Canadians would be wondering how our aerospace sector was left out in the cold yet again.  Instead, the nearly 100 firms that have contributed to F-35 have benefited enormously.

Now, if we could only get an announcement on the F-35 being selected so that everyone could get on to the business of building more jets.