Canada’s Search For Jet Fighters

Russian Tupolev Tu-95 bombers on patrol during the ‘Cold War’

Jets needed to counter Russian threat, but dithering prevails

Part 2 of a 3-part series by Eribert Loehner

My previous article described why Canada needs a new fleet of military fighter jets.  

They are required to both replace its aging fleet of CF-18 Hornets and to ensure sovereignty over Canada’s arctic by preventing incursions of Russian military patrol bombers.

However, the purchase of new military fighter aircraft is very expensive. The cost can easily undermine a smaller country’s marginal fiscal budget.

Canadian CF-18 Hornet

Also, the procurement of fighter jets is always a political dogfight and tends to breed legislative gridlock. Finding replacements for the CF-18’s, while necessary, is not easy and Canada’s previous Conservative Government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper knew it.

Canadian CF-18 Hornet intercepts a Soviet Tupolev bomber

The Canadian Department of National Defence does have an elaborate evaluation and procurement process to ensure the selection and purchase of the best possible aircraft to meet Canada’s needs.

This process, however, was circumvented in 2010 by the Conservative government when it signed a letter of intent (LoI) with the US to participate in the development and purchase 65 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighters.

The F-35 was derived from a 1997 requirement by the US Department of Defence. It was to be the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft but it was still under development when Canada signed the LoA.  

The Letter of Intent committed Canada to contribute financially toward the F-35’s development, but it also allowed Canadian aerospace corporations to bid on contracts for its development and manufacture.

Lockheed Martin F35Bs and F35Cs in formation

This may have been foremost on Prime Minister Harper’s mind when he signed the Letter. It would make Canada’s small aerospace industry a world leader the military aircraft business.

The Letter of Intent excluded any other aircraft manufacturers from competing for Canada’s fighter procurement business, but it was not an official purchase contract.

As such, it did not require parliamentary debate for approval thereby silencing opposition party critics. This may also have been foremost on Prime Minister Harper’s mind.

Colin McKay, the then Conservative Minister of Defence, informed parliament that the new fighters would cost $9 billion, but this figure did not include operating and maintenance figures. During the 2011 election the inclusive cost was specified as $16 billion.

However, in 2012, an Auditor General’s report revealed the cost to be closer to $45 billion and the Conservative government was censured for trying to deceive parliament.

Justin Trudeau, then in opposition, promised that, if he won the 2015 election, Canada would definitely not buy the F-35!

Mr. Trudeau and his Liberal Party did win the 2015 election. The CF-18s still need to be replaced and cancelling the Letter of Intent will have wasted a full five years in the replacement process.