ON TARGET: As election dust settles, new PM may need to revise stance on F-35 plan

By: Scott Taylor

 Prime-Minister-designate, Justin Trudeau, vowed in his election platform to cancel Canada’s participation in the purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and instead seek a cheaper replacement option for the CF-18 fleet.

Prime-Minister-designate, Justin Trudeau, vowed in his election platform to cancel Canada’s participation in the purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and instead seek a cheaper replacement option for the CF-18 fleet.

Once the dust settles on Justin Trudeau’s historic election victory, it will be time for the Liberal party to roll up its sleeves and set to work bringing about all that “real change” they have promised Canadians.

Focusing purely on defence issues, Trudeau vowed during the campaign that one of his first priorities would be to end the Royal Canadian Air Force commitment in the allied air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. On his first day as prime minister-designate, Trudeau kept that promise (sort of) by telling U.S. President Barack Obama that Canada would be withdrawing from the air alliance. Of course, Trudeau did not specify an exact date as to when the RCAF contingent will pack up and fly home from Kuwait.

Some have speculated that, in order to appease Obama, Canada might keep our six-pack of CF-18 fighters in the Middle East until the one-year Parliament-approved mission extension expires in April.

As a sop to the Americans, Trudeau has also promised to keep Canada in the fight against ISIS, albeit in a different capacity than simply launching combat air strikes. This could take the form of continuing the training mission in Kurdistan or the provision of more strategic airlift capability, but there is virtually zero chance Canada will be putting boots on the ground in an actual combat role.

During the campaign, the Liberals also vowed to cancel Canada’s participation in the purchase of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The defeated Conservative government had announced its intention to purchase 65 planes to replace the RCAF’S aging fleet of CF-18 Hornets. However, in the face of damaging audits and assessments that pegged the acquisition at a staggering $44 billion — rather than the originally announced $16 billion — the Harper government had pushed the reset button on the entire project.

This being real life and not a Staples commercial, no one knew exactly what Harper meant by pushing the easy button, but it was clear that both the Conservative government and the RCAF still wanted to acquire F-35s no matter the actual cost.

Trudeau stated categorically that, if elected, the Liberals would take them off the menu and seek a cheaper replacement aircraft for the CF-18 fleet. It is true that, to date, Canada has not actually signed a contract with Lockheed Martin so, in theory, there should be no requirement to pay out any cancellation fees. However, there will still be a price to pay.

From the outset, the Joint Strike Fighter initiative was to be a multinational collaboration effort with all participating countries bearing a share of the development costs. Canada has paid US$309 million to date to be a member of the club and thereby permit the Canadian aviation industry to bid on production contracts.

As of yet, and with no final number of worldwide aircraft orders yet determined, the unit cost per F-35 remains a guesstimate. Whenever one country opts out of the program, the remaining partners take heed because this will inevitably drive up the unit cost of the price they must pay. Beyond just the U.S., the club includes another 10 countries, many of which are key NATO allies.

Canada’s lack of military foresight and investment in the 1990s meant we had to turn to many of these same allies to beg, borrow, lease and cajole the necessary weaponry and equipment to sustain our battle groups in Afghanistan. For instance, we borrowed helicopters from the U.S., tanks from the Germans and our troops hitchhiked airlifts with Dutch and Polish helicopters.

For the new Liberal government, opting out of the fighter program for the sake of appeasing the electorate could have international repercussions of substantial consequence. A compromise solution would be for Trudeau to put them back on the table and for the Canadian Armed Forces to conduct a fair and transparent competition to determine which aircraft will best suit the RCAF’s needs in the post-CF-18 era.

That way, our allies and fellow partner nations will know this was not just political grandstanding by a newly elected prime minister.

We should never underestimate or undermine the goodwill Canada has with our allies. God knows, they have bailed us out in the past and will likely have to do so again in the near future.