The Harper government’s proposed purchase of 65 F-35 Lighting II fighter jets to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s aging CF-18s has proven very controversial. The F-35 was the only plane to meet the standards set by the federal government, leading to criticism that the procurement process was rigged in favour of the F-35. Likewise, the anticipated costs of the purchase have ballooned from $16 billion when it was originally announced to over $40 billion in the most recent estimate. Late last year, the Harper government announced a review of the decision to buy the F-35 and appointed a panel of experts, including F-35 critics, to conduct the review.
Reviewing the decision to buy the F-35 is sensible, considering this is the largest military procurement project since the end of the Cold War. But the debate over whether Canada should purchase the F-35 has focused too narrowly on the anticipated costs of buying the plane rather than on what Canada’s actual defense needs are, and whether the F-35 is the best plane to meet them. If one piece of military hardware is more capable than others, it makes sense to pay more for it.
Canada uses fighter jets in two ways: first, they form the bulk of Canada’s contribution to North American air defense. They patrol the edges of Canada’s airspace, as well as staying on standby at Canadian Forces bases. Second, fighter jets can be deployed overseas as they were in the Gulf War in 1991, the Kosovo War in 1999, and the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011.
The F-35 would likely perform well in both capacities. It is certainly more advanced than the CF-18, particularly in terms of stealth technology, which makes it far harder to detect using radar than a CF-18. This matters less in domestic operations, when it is usually desirable that other planes know the fighters are present, but could make a difference in expeditionary operations if Canada was engaged in hostilities with a country with an advanced air force, or at least sophisticated surface-to-air missiles. The F-35 would likely perform well, but it would do so at tremendous cost.
Canada does not rank high in defense spending. Purchasing the F-35 would eat up the lion’s share of Canada’s military procurement budget for much of the foreseeable future, closing off the possibility of spending on other military priorities. This seems short-sighted, especially given Canada’s experience in the past decade, when the Canadian army has played a leading role in Canada’s largest expeditionary operation since the Korean War: the mission in Afghanistan. A more balanced approach to procurement might be preferable if Canada intends to continue to conduct the kind of expeditionary operations that it has in the past.
Buying a cheaper fighter jet, perhaps the Boeing Super Hornet used by the Australian Air Force and the United States, would leave open the possibility of making investments in the army and the Royal Canadian Navy. This would allow Canada to continue to make its valuable contribution to North American air defense, while maintaining and ultimately building on the capabilities it developed during the war in Afghanistan. The result of a balanced approach would be a stronger Canadian military, better able to provide a wide range of options to federal governments of all stripes.
Patrick Baud’s column appears every other issue.