The Liberal government under Justin Trudeau has been unfairly maligned for mishandling the replacement of Canada’s 40-year-old legacy Hornets. Instead, the CF-18 replacement has been craftily managed to get the best possible deal for Canada in virtually every aspect. In the 6+ years since Justin Trudeau halted the sole source procurement of the F-35, the price of the jet has dropped from approximately $110M per aircraft to below $78M, more than 30%. The Trudeau government properly aligned the priorities of simultaneous support for NORAD and NATO and increased the fleet requirement from 65 jets originally identified by the Chretien government to 88 jets, an increase of 26% fleet size.
If Canada had pulled the trigger early in 2015 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper had the chance, Canada would have received less capable F-35s, with older Block 3i software, lots of glitches, flying maneuvering restrictions and growing pains yet to be solved. Now, when Canada commits to F-35, the RCAF will receive Block 4 jets with amazing connectivity, mature sensor fusion, enhanced electronic warfare, a new cradle-to-grave maintenance system, a working drag chute, interoperability with other NATO nations who have already fielded F-35s and learned all the important lessons of how to utilize the jets, and the list goes on.
Canada continues to reap the benefits of industrial participation; $616M invested into the F-35 program and $2.7B in contracts let so far, more than 4 times the return on investment direct to Canadian companies. Even better, that amount, paid before any formal F-35 procurement is signed does not count in Lockheed Martin or F-35’s favor and they will have to make up the full amount for the industrial benefit credits in the competition structure. So that ‘early’ money comes on top of the F-35 business that would flow after a contract is signed.
The timing could not be better for Justin Trudeau to have milked the most out of the F-35 partnership and now commit to buying the biggest single lot of airplanes of any partner nation (Australia and UK bought in tiered buys).
More (88 instead of 65), cheaper ($78M instead of $110M), better (Block 4 instead of Block 3), and best ROI (better than 4 to 1) sounds like an incredibly well executed plan even more so with the US ‘Build Back Better’ trend to see Canada get a better deal and squeeze everything from those pesky, insular Yankees.
Of course, none of this is true.
The Liberal government has mismanaged this procurement every step of the way. I have always warned Americans about the EH-101 fiasco where Jean Chretien promised during the election campaign that if elected, he would cancel the program. The day after being elected, the new Prime Minister cancelled the contract. The RCAF had completed a full procurement assessment and signed the contract to purchase the EH-101 Merlin for Search and Rescue as well as shipboard Maritime missions. With the contract cancelled, Canada paid more than $500M in penalties and was left without a new helicopter. Chretien used the line that Canada shouldn’t buy Cadillacs when all it really needed was Chevrolets. 20+ years later, the RCAF was still limping along with the tired Sea Kings and finally procured Sikorsky Cyclone helicopters with mountains of growing pains along the way.
How did the Minster of National Defence get to 88 jets if the RCAF had all along been forced to limit the number of fighters needed to 65? Two staff officers, with very credible backgrounds, reworked the numbers of jets needed to fly NORAD, plus NATO missions, plus spares, plus airplanes in modification status, and all the extras. This was not done by a formal trade study or operational assessment as is always the case; two guys in headquarters came up with those numbers that allowed DND to change their posture which was then going to allow the Liberals to argue that they needed more jets right way and to buy Super Hornets (and get out of the F-35 deal).
What if Stephen Harper had pulled the trigger on the F-35 in 2015 when he had the chance? There was a plan to pull 4 F-35s from the line of USAF airplanes and dedicate them to Canada to start the effort. I would have enjoyed flying those first jets and Canada would have saved billions buying used Australian legacy Hornets, modifying them to RCAF standards, only to be retired sometime soon after. One of the great ironies is that Steven Fuhr, who had flown CF-18s for a brief period in the RCAF and was later elected to Parliament, led the charge to sole source Boeing Super Hornets to fill the capability gap that the Liberal government invented. Fuhr had family ties to Boeing and was deep in bed with the company. He used his fighter pilot background within the new government to push for Super Hornets without understanding the technologies involved, or the costs. The ‘end around’ almost worked as they tried to pull the trigger for 18 Super Hornets in the summer of 2016. Most think that the deal failed because of the Bombardier / Boeing trade dispute related to the C-Series airliner launch. What really killed the deal was the $6B price tag for 18 jets, astronomical by any standards and unpalatable. After all, the original procurement of 65 F-35s was capped at $9B so paying $6B for 18 Super Hornets was not going to work. Fuhr failed his new government compatriots and Canada was launched into the swamp with this long, painful procurement fiasco.
Does Capability matter? Usually in Canada we think no, but Survivability matters. F-35 has repeatedly shown exchange ratios better than 20:1. Older generation fighters, like Saab’s Gripen E, at the best of times, might see exchange ratios of 2:1 (they best the bad guys…for every 2 Russians taken out, 1 Gripen is lost). Does Canada want to trade the lives of RCAF fighter pilots 2:1 or do we want those men and women to come home every time from combat with a fighter that can best the enemy by more than 20 to 1? Even the Liberals can do that math. BTW, the Gripen has never seen combat in any model since first employed in the early 1990’s. That’s a long time to fly peacetime missions, primarily in Sweden and then come to Canada to take on F-35 which has already been deployed in combat in the Middle East.
The question for the Liberals is how they will tell a story that allows them to back away from their promise not to buy the F-35. The other element to watch is how Lockheed Martin will help soften the ground over the winter to educate Canadians what F-35 really means for Canada. Are the Liberals astute enough to tell the jobs story and how the contractor kept the F-35 contracts and companies whole throughout the pandemic, and how the increasing number of non-F-35-partner nations buying F-35s means even more work for those Canadian firms that make parts for every F-35 that flies? The ‘Industrial Logic’ that Lockheed Martin (LM) has applied to communications in Canada for the last decade plus has not worked well…but thanks to Boeing being excluded, there isn’t really a serious competitor left and LM now must neutralize any Saab-Quebec liaison that might give hope to that long-shot team. This is a perfect time for LM to step up the talk about jobs, jobs, jobs and future economic opportunities. But it is also hard for the Texans to get beyond their fatigue with Canada and to give a 3rd period press instead of trying to cruise to a win. Canadians remember Team Canada doing that with Team USA during the Canada Cup hockey series…which did not work out well, did it? We almost did the same thing at the Vancouver Olympics but were saved by Sydney Crosby’s OT goal. Let’s try not to blow this one…LM needs to give the Liberals a hand telling a great economic story, bury the option of buying Gripen and get this over with.
And where are we now with F-35 still alive and the Swedish-built Saab Gripen posed against it? The new Gripen E model is still in testing and not fielded which means it has lots of bugs and software problems to be ironed out before it is ready for operational use. In the Finland competition, where F-35 beat out Gripen as the new Finnish Air Force fighter, the Gripen costed out at $101M vice the F-35 at under $80M, not even close.
Remember Justin Trudeau standing up in Parliament in June 2016 saying about the Conservative party… “They clung to an aircraft that does not work and is far from working.”
How could the Liberal government now choose an airplane that is not ready for operational use, has many growing pains yet to be discovered and costs more than the F-35.
So, the Liberals can still snatch victory here…
My biggest fear is the government wanting to save face, and choosing Gripen, despite F-35 being the better choice. But JT thought he could have a fair competition and exclude the F-35, so stranger things have happened. If Gripen gets picked, I fear retention issues, especially for the RCAF fighter community, will get worse.
I want to trust the government to get this right, but politics always makes sure that you get less than what you really need….all in the name of saving face.
LM has been very quiet through all of this, which also worries me. Your hockey analogy is very much on point….and I was nervous during that game, where Crosby scored in OT.
Trudeau’s defense policy is to rely on the U.S. He has nothing but contempt for things military (his father never showed up in WWII). He knows the Americans will have to come to Canada’s rescue when the Chinese get aggressive. He does not want a new fighter, particularly after his naive comments above quoted. So will it happen? There is only one possible scenario.
Liberals care about one matter: re-election. The new fighter decision will only occur if Quebec picks up the phone and guarantees Trudeau another term, and a majority.
Europeans know all about corruption. They will leave no stone unturned in Quebec to hand it another aerospace bail out after the Bombardier fiasco. And then Quebec will make the call.
Hi Billie. I think an important thought to tuck away in the back of one’s mind is that the present PM is the son of a former PM. As an interesting exercise in historical research, try and find out where Trudeau Pere was from 1940 to 1946. The best I have done is…he was thought to have last been seen traveling east through Egypt in 1943… . Wherever could he have been headed. My belief is that he was a communist sympathizer, spent some time in China and Russia, and did his best to convert Canada. He destroyed our currency with his invention of deficit budgeting and made our military almost unworkable. I was a new Flying Officer at that time, 1964, and lived through the whole fiasco. Trudeau Fis learned at his father’s knee. So, consider that he may well have zero intention of getting the F-35 unless it is a giveaway program. I believe that not s-canning the Huawei 5G stuff is an excellent example of that. He probably is deeply in bed with the Chinese and they for sure would like to see Canada at odds with the US primarily and the free world in general. We had the Chinese military training in Canada already we know that China stole Nortel’s intellectual property and created Huawei from that theft. It also killed Nortel. We have seen two Chinese doctors thrown out but can’t find out why. Flash forward to today.
The UN is infiltrated by China, the WHO is a prime example. I strongly believe that we have just witnessed the first and unbelievably successful planetary Germ Warfare strike by China staring in Wuhan. Our PM is probably delusional enough to think that he place Canada onside with China and scuttling the F-35 program could be collateral damage in that effort. Logic clearly has nothing to do with his thought processes.
At least run this concept by some of your colleagues. The best strategy I think would be to use some of his BFFs tactics and expose him for his videoed conversion to Islam in a Monreal mosque as well as his reported bi-sexual relationship with another former PM’s son. These kinds of people with their megalomaniacal mindsets absolutely can’t stand to be laughed at or made fun of. We are stuck with him probably for at least another three years. The mind boggles at the damage he can do in that time period.
Not sure what can be done as we Canadians created the problem by re-electing him and his idiot followers.
Hope this is of some help. Billy Best Dec. 23, 2021
Larry, as always, enjoy your opinions. As i see it, nowhere in political and media commentaries do they ever discuss operational or co-operational capabilities of the F-35.
I guess that’s just for us old guys (and the new guys) who have sat, and will sit in the cockpits and face threats. This entire drama is simply disgusting.
Astute comments by Billie, with some tongue-in-cheek involved. Anything bother than F-35 at this point would be gross stupidity but that “expertise” is part of PMJT’s resume. Regardless of what we decide to buy, we are critically short of fighter pilots who have been voting with their feet for years. We are at about 33% of where we should be and will be hard-pressed to implement anything. Far cry from the early 80s and implementing CF-18.
Billie I want to thank you for keeping a web site & giving your take on the relivant 3 planes & some insight on the F35 (like how much space it really takes to land one given some parameters)
I have been following the RCAF for some time and will admit to seeing the Golden Centanaires & the Red Knight fly more then a few years ago. In trying to continually educate myself in this replacement process I keep trying to read more & between the lines of everyones PR bull. ( in fact you almost can’t tell the players & who they represent without a program). So let me be up front & say I have never ridden in a combat jet or pulled g’s or are aware of any of the critical details that matter to the guy sitting in the ‘seat’.
I think Ricardo (in a past video presentation with the RCAF asso ) mentioned we have to get it right… and I think thats something we can all agree on, regardless of which plane we back. ( I had visions of the start of ww2 & the guys flying Defiants…wrong plane, wrong time…yes it was the British but the point is relivant…they were terrible)
So bypassing all the jobs & focus on $ amounts & things that are more corporate PR…
So some F35 questions if I can ask….
– Is Block 4 software ready now or how far down the line will it be?
-Can they realistically get the mait costs down to affordable?
-Can the plane carry 4 internal air to air missiles vs the often quoted 2 AIM 120 & 2 JDAM?
Will the Dam plane work as advertised vs company promises it will or if Canada buys it, will we immediately need a round of expensive upgrades or changes?
Bob Thanks for the note.
Block 4 development is underway. Much like previous Blocks, it will be released over time and brings massive capability enhancements to the jet.
The focus on Maintenance costs can be paralleled to the procurement cost reduction. The program promised to drop the price and we have seen the A model cost dropped dramatically to now below $78M US, cheaper than all 4th Gen fighters including Gripen. The focus on supportability and making the maintenance process more efficient will help drive those cost per flight hour down.
F-35 has always carried 2 AMRAAM and 2 JDAM. Please look at the many, many photos on Google to see those configurations. It carried only 4 AMRAAM until the recent development of ‘Sidekick’. Soon to be fielded F-35s will carry 6 AMRAAMs internally.
Does the airplane work? Ask the 13 air forces that fly it. Ask those nations that have flown the F-35 in combat already. Ask every single pilot from every nation how formidable the F-35 is. You will get those answers. Finally, ask Russia or China if they are worried about the F-35. It terrifies its adversaries because of the game changing capability.
No one except the armchair quarterbacks in Canada question the capability, survivability or effectiveness of the F-35.
Well said, Billie. Congrats on the blog. Any way to follow it? (get automatically notified when you post something new?)
Just some thoughts on comparison about combat effectiveness. You compare the F-35 fighting earlier generations and then throw in Gripen C (though you call it E, which isn’t operational yet….) and match that when it meets peer adversaries? A more equal comparison would be to let the Gripen E seal club some gen 4 fighters just like the F-35, dont you think? The C and the E models basically shares the same shape, name and maintenance tools, thats it. It’s a new plane but I can see how it’s easy to miss that given their similarities.
I still think that Canada , now that the Super Hornet is out, will choose F-35. It will be costlier to maintain, there is just no way around that but the industry off-sets will be severe, as you stated. The crux here is that that might not be realized in bigger defense funding in order to keep those amazing planes flying. Governments always have some other big holes to dump money in. I just hope you wont end up with a black hole in the defence budget that hampers you from buying all the other goodies that you want. Peace!
Jonas – Putting any 4th Gen fighter up against a VLO fighter will result in the same outcome. When a stealth fighter can detect a non-stealth platform from a significant distance an fire weapons, gain advantage, the result will always go to the 5th Gen fighter. Gripen E would not fair much better than Gripen C or Typhoon or Rafale or F-16 or F-15, etc. Not being seen and yet seeing the entire battle space is what gives both F-22 and F-35 such a game changing advantage. Why does that matter in Canada?…Survivability. Why does that matter in a NATO context? the incredibly effective and lethal Russian SAM systems that are deployed will have a terrifying effect on 4th Gen fighters if that day ever comes to pass where a high threat attack is needed. Being observable puts 4th Gen fighters immediately defensive and concerned about living through the SAM belts instead of focusing on the attack or mission at hand.
Gripen E is a new Gripen but it is not a new generation fighter. There is a vast distinction between the best of 4th Gen and the next generation of fighters.
Finally, all fighters cost a lot of money. I marvel that Canadians think you can trade in a 40 year old Hornet for the same price as a new generation fighter. Are they expensive to operate? One factor to consider is parts obsolesence in the future with 4th Gen fighters. Canada will operate its new fighter for 40+ years. Older airplanes will be out of production in a relatively short time frame versus F-35 which will be built past 2045. Where will the parts come for an orphan fleet of Gripens when Canada, Sweden and Brazil are the only naitons flying them 20+ years from now. The price of keeping old tech operational will be far more expensive than supplying the F-35s that are part of a world wide fleet.