If newly-obtained documents are any indication, Canada may become the first country to scrap its order for the American F-35 fighter jet, the most expensive weapons program ever. Letters sent to the big industry players are just further evidence that the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to pull the trigger on a whole new open competition to pick Canada's next generation of fighter jet.
That competition will likely favour an out-of-the-box jet, over the expensive F-35.
Industry sources confirmed that the government set up meetings with big-name players in the aerospace industry in recent weeks to figure out its next steps in buying a new fighter jet — this, even though it's technically already on the hook to buy 65 of the F-35 Lightning II jets, manufactured by Lockheed Martin.
Those face-to-face meetings took place with representatives from two US companies: Boeing, Lockheed Martin itself; Sweden's Saab; the French Dassault; and the European multinational consortium Eurofighter. All of them make fighters that, while less advanced than the stealthy F-35, are vastly cheaper.
The meetings follow a 38-page questionnaire, provided to VICE News, which was sent to the five industry players, asking them to lay out the pros and cons of their jets.
This inquiry is likely the first step in what promises to be a protracted competition to choose a warplane to replace the current fleet of 79 CF-188 Hornets, a version of the American F-18, that Canada bought in the 1980s. Those jets, the letter notes, "should have been replaced years ago"
"The Government of Canada remains committed to building a more agile, better-equipped military, while ensuring best value for Canadians," reads a letter sent to the companies that accompanied the questionnaire.
Pulling out of the international consortium to build the F-35 program — which dates back to 1998 and includes the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia, and others — could be costly for the remaining partners, and may force some of the smaller states to reconsider their participation. The total cost of the program for Canada is pegged at some $25 billion, over the life of the jets. The full cost of the procurement is virtually impossible to pin down, but it is estimated that the full life-cycle cost for the US' nearly 2,500 planes could hit $1.5 trillion.
While the document stresses that "no decision has been made at this time and all procurement options are being considered," those in the industry who have obtained the letter say it likely means that Ottawa will start from scratch and force a whole new competition for the jets.
Ottawa isn't wasting time. The letters, sent July 7, have a due date of July 29 for the submission of proposals.
A spokesperson for the Department of National Defense wouldn't comment on the letters, but indicated that they would be posted publicly next week.
If Canada does go back to the drawing board, it could be bad news for the international F-35 program, which has been beset by one problem after another. According to a March 2016 report, its software remained buggy. It shook mid-flight. Its diagnostics system had trouble figuring out what needs repair, and what doesn't.
Those problems, Lockheed Martin contends, have been put to bed. The company expects to announce that the planes are fully operational in US service — with all the kinks worked out — by the end of summer.
No country has, thus far, pulled out entirely from the consortium, despite heated political debates in some countries that have chosen the F-35.
Since their election in October, the Liberals have been been paralyzed on what to do about the procurement process.
In their official platform, Trudeau's party swore: "We will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber." Their plan was to reopen the competition process, rip up the sole-sourced contract to Lockheed Martin, and exclude the F-35 altogether.
Trudeau's team has been more equivocal since taking office. The letters that were sent out in early July certainly suggest that Lockheed Martin will be allowed to participate in the process.
If Canada does back out, it could spell two big problems: it could raise costs for the remaining partners, since they will be spread out over fewer overall planes, and it could lead to other smaller partners to back out as well — which, in turn, could increase costs.
There are already a few weak links in the consortium.
In Australia, currently on the hook to buy 72 of the planes, objections have been raised as well since Trudeau's election in October. An analyst with independent think tank Air Power Australia, which had long been critical of the F-35, told an Australian Senate committee earlier this year that the plane was a "jackass of all trades and masterful of none," and compared the entire procurement process to a Ponzi scheme.
Italy, also a big customer and most importantly one of the two countries outside the US that will assemble the plane, is still planning to buy the jets, although it scaled back its acquisition by 30 percent. The Norwegian military, which plans to buy 52, has also openly mused about cutting its purchase, thanks to a stagnant economy.
Part of the deal with the consortium, meant to offset the staggering costs of the acquisition, was to expand research, development, and upkeep across all partners. Each country would have a chance to vie for contracts and maintenance with the planes, meaning that buying the planes could come with huge economic benefits. But as costs continue to rise, the allure of manufacturing jobs has become less and less attractive.
Lockheed Martin does have an insurance policy to keep countries in the consortium: Jobs. The massive American defense company has publicly said that, should Canada withdraw, it could lose 10,000 job opportunities to develop, maintain, and repair the aircraft.
The questionnaire sent to industry appears to acknowledge this potential headache.
"Please describe the potential opportunities for Canadian companies to be integrated into the production supply chain of this aircraft," the questionnaire asks prospective suppliers. "Could these opportunities extend to the global supply for future sales of this aircraft? Please explain. Are there future opportunities for Canadian companies to participate in the development of upgrades on the current aircraft and/or developmental opportunities related to a new version of the aircraft?"
Canada's likely alternative is the more practical F/A-18 Super Hornet — an upgraded model of Canada's current fleet of fighter jets — manufactured by Boeing. Sources have already said that the Trudeau government would be looking to buy a number of Super Hornets while they figure out whether to stick with the F-35, or go elsewhere; Australia made a similar move during its procurement process.
The questionnaire certainly hints that the Super Hornet could be an ideal replacement for their aging predecessor.
"If the current CF-18 gun ammunition, deployable countermeasures (e.g. chaff/flares), missiles and bombs, are incompatible with the new aircraft this item should include the cost of an initial stock of such items," the introduction to the questionnaire reads.
If Canada purchases some F/A-18s in the interim, it's deeply unlikely that it would go on to buy the F-35s as well, as it would require a whole different set of trained personnel, equipment and weaponry, which could bring higher costs.
But the letter provided with the questionnaire hints at the government doing exactly that — citing a perceived "capability gap" — telling prospective manufacturers that "new aircraft must be acquired as soon as possible so Canada can remain a credible and dependable ally."
Those in the industry have balked at the idea that this gap exists at all. Canadian CF-18 jets had been used in the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, regularly participate in exercises in Eastern Europe, and are regularly used to patrol the arctic. Life-extending measures will mean those jets will be usable well after the delivery date of whichever aircraft Canada chooses to buy.
Harjit Singh Sajjan, Canada's defense minister, has, nevertheless, liberally employed that talking point as of late, saying that the country needs to move quickly — but not, evidently, on the F-35.
Canada's current fleet of jets, however, will remain operational at least until 2023. Even factoring in some delays, the F-35s are expected to be delivered by 2020, though Lockheed Martin contends that if Canada really wants them sooner, it could work out a deal to have the jets delivered within 18 months.
On top of this, the F/A-18 is simply a less capable aircraft. The technological argument for the F-35, whatever its drawbacks, is pretty solid.
And when this journalist sat in the cockpits of the flight simulators for each jet, there was no competition — the F-35 was easier to control, easier to shoot, and more maneuverable. In the industry, there's no question: the F-35 is the better jet.
But Boeing has marketed the F-18 more as a minivan than a Ferrari, highlighting its stability, cost, and reliability — for example, it has two engines as opposed to the F-35's single one, a big plus over the vast expanses of Canada's North where an engine failure could spell doom.
"It's difficult to imagine a better value proposition," Roberto Valla, Boeing's Vice President of Global Sales for Canada, told a room of journalists at a defense show in Ottawa earlier in 2016.
A statement from Boeing, provided to VICE News, contends that "We believe the Super Hornet is the best fit for Canada, with low acquisition and sustainment costs, advanced capabilities, and economic benefits for Canadian industry, building on Boeing's $6 billion in direct contracts with Canadian companies over the past five years alone."
A Boeing representative previously admitted that, should Ottawa go for the F/A-18, it would not necessarily come with any direct economic benefit to Canada.
The other options are less likely candidates. There's the Eurofighter Typhoon, a plane that's been in service for more than a decade with a handful of NATO states and others. Then there's the Dassault Rafale, used by France and ordered by a small number of Middle Eastern states. The Saab Gripen, a smaller one-engined fighter, is currently deployed by the air forces of nations like Sweden and Hungary.
Ultimately, those are all unlikely candidates for heavy-lifting NATO partners like Canada. Ricardo Traven, chief test pilot for the F/A-18 Super Hornet, said the competition is really between the F-35 and the F/A-18. The others? "We kind of squash them," he said.
The Gripen, for example — "we're not even in the same class," Traven said. "It is, to me, a toy."
Boeing says it is welcoming the open competition, confident that it is the cheapest of the two options. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, hopes that Ottawa will stick to the precedent of other nations and eventually choose to stick with the Lightning.
Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling