Observers of Trudeau’s first official visit at the White House noted how Trudeau mastered the infamous Donald Trump handshake, made Ivanka Trump swoon, and managed to navigate an increasingly uncomfortable relationship without scandal. Comparatively few noticed an item in the joint statement that would have caused quite a stir a year ago: Canada is looking to purchase 18 new Super Hornet fighter jets from the US while in search of a “suitable permanent replacement” for the CF-18s. A permanent replacement apparently needs more pondering, and why it shouldn’t when the leading option is still somehow the F-35.
It’s worth recapping why the F-35 program is giving the US allies such pause. Contrary to popular belief, the next generation of fighter aircraft will not conclusively be better than the last. The development of the F-35 is marked with seemingly endless cost overruns and so far taken more time and cost more money than the Apollo program. This does not bode well for this aircraft being a good military product and operational tests, aside from those conducted by paid shills, have been inconclusive at the best of times. And at the worst of times? In 2015 an F-35 test pilot gave the damning assessment that the F-35 was at a serious disadvantage against the F-16 in a dogfight, and the F-16 was introduced into service in 1978, nearly 40 years earlier.
When it comes to costs, the F-35 is comparatively quite expensive. One 2015 estimate places the cost of the F-35 at 7.5 times that of purchasing an equivalent number of CF-18s. Nor is it certain that the F-35 is suited to the local conditions or strategic necessities of its purchasers. A 2013 Pentagon report noted for one that the F-35 requires a heated hangar, not particularly practical for a country like Canada. Not to mention that the aircraft has difficulty flying through clouds, which should be an important problem for any potential purchaser. Too much embarrassment, even the US military itself has F-35 skeptics with the navy expressing a strong preference for buying more CF-18s instead of F-35s and Donald Trump himself mocking the aircraft’s cost overruns.
With all this in mind, it would be a surprise if Canada voluntarily decided to purchase F-35s to replace their aging CF-18s. While many tentatively committed to purchasing the F-35 10 or 20 years ago, before its capabilities were clear, since the early 2010s Canada and others have toyed with the idea of scrapping their F-35 procurement plans entirely. This includes the Liberal Party of Canada for one, but it is not 2015 anymore, and the F-35 is now considered as a solid option for Canada again. This new optimism comes even though the technical specifications of the aircraft have not much improved and the price-tag has actually increased in many cases due to the rising US dollar.
So what is really going on here?
Major defense procurement and weapons platform development projects come with such a significant risk that the state must underwrite them, in order for major military development programs to occur. That means the state must subsidize development costs and guarantee a market for the end product, especially important since there is no free market for military goods. If the US government were to pull the plug on the F-35 program entirely, the losses for American companies involved would be significant enough to put American competitiveness in these industries in serious jeopardy. The F-35 program has essentially become too big to fail and the US needs to secure markets for the final aircraft.
The F-35 is probably not a good “buy” but a complicated and closely interwoven political economic relationship means that procurement deal itself may only be a secondary consideration in a wider diplomatic landscape. The political incentive is to delay, with the hope that the problem will solve itself, or be forced on a successor. Yet the CF-18s put into service in 1983 are now nearing the end of their shelf-life and the maintenance of aging aircraft fleets is increasingly stop-gap and cannibalistic. Of the 138 CF-18s originally purchased, only 79 are still operational in 2017. This makes a quick and decisive resolution important, no matter how difficult that may be. If Trudeau really wants to demonstrate leadership and competence in Canada-US relations, a masterful resolution of the F-35 procurement debacle would be a good place to start.
Mark Robbins is a doctoral student in political science at the University of Toronto with interests centring on questions of political economy and public policy. Immediately prior to joining the PhD program Mark was a research associate at the Conference Board of Canada focusing on industry and business strategy. Mark holds a Bachelor in Political Science from the University of Ottawa and a Masters in Political Economy from Carleton University where his dissertation work focused on military spending.
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