Canada's F-35 Problem Might Be Solved by The F-35

It might've been described as a 'turkey,' but Canada will probably still buy the F-35.

Jun 8 2014, 6:00pm
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Just when it looked like Canada was going to bail out on the contentious F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, sources have gone and told Reuters that the 18-month government panel re-examining the fighter will advise the Harper government to renew its purchases.

The decision will be music to the ears of Lockheed Martin executives and Pentagon officials who promoted the plane. Reuters said that three different sources confirmed to the news agency that the Canadians would proceed with the $9 billion purchase. At CANSEC, Canada’s premier defence trade show, representatives for the Rafale fighter, Boeing Super Hornet, and the Eurofighter Typhoon (along with Lockheed Martin) made the case for their fighter jet to be Canada’s plane of the future. Now it looks like the three losing competitors made the trip to Ottawa for nothing.

When Motherboard reached out to the federal government for comment on the program, the Prime Minister’s office referred queries to Public Works, and Public Works has yet to comment on whether the reports are true.

The original procurement announcement from the Harper government was for 65 planes. But as costs for each plane rose by the millions and officials downplayed the price tag, the government got cold feet and scrapped the procurement, with opposition critics gaining valuable political ammunition. Eventually Harper announced a multi-agency review of the fighter program that, in the end, came to the conclusion to keep the F-35. The price tag isn’t exactly a deal either. Most estimations put the jet at over $100 million per plane, representing a huge increase from the $81 million valuation in 2001

For the past few years the fate of the plane was in limbo. Failed performance tests coupled with its infamous status as the most expensive weapons program in history made the F-35 a defence policy pariah. The spectre of countries dropping out of the program, keeping the remaining participants on the hook for the rising per-plane costs, kept fears of a program implosion fresh in the minds of buyers. Canada's purchase would make it the sixth largest buyer and also go a long way in keeping the multibillion dollar program afloat. Buoyed by Canada’s renewal and new sthat Japan and South Korea would also purchase the plane, the future of Lockheed Martin’s “next generation fighter” is on track.

Motherboard reached out to Lockheed Martin for comment on the latest reports from Reuters and has yet to receive comment.

At CANSEC, Lockheed Martin easily made the sexiest pitch. Parading out a full simulator with missile and dogfighting capabilities, along with the demon helmet pilots wear (fit with a Google Glass-like projector built into the visor, streaming data), the demo saw countless executives and military types trying out the toys and being wooed by salespeople. That being said, I tried out the simulator too, and while it was cool to flip the plane in virtual acrobatics and lock my missiles onto enemy aircraft, others aren’t so sure on the fighter. 

Originally built to evade radars, drop bombs, and dogfight rival fighters, questions surrounding the actual ability of the F-35 have plagued the program for years. One expert compared the fighter to a “turkey” in a 2013 documentary by the CBC’s Fifth Estate examining the controversial program and the international political pressure surrounding it. Sure the F-35 has pretty Gucci vertical takeoffs, but it still only has one engine (which scares some pilots I spoke to), and questions surround its maneuverability. As far as bombers go it can’t carry a huge payload either. As Kyle Meema writes in the Ottawa Citizen in an op-ed against the plane, its deployment in future conflicts is also questionable: “the F-35 lacks the teeth to meet the air-to-air threats of today and tomorrow.”

Part of the problem is that the design team at Lockheed Martin tried to make an all-in-one Swiss Army knife plane that could do everything. Given the culture of cost cutting in Western militaries, one plane to rule them all is a simple solution in theory, eliminating the need for multiple procurement plans for different aircraft. The reality, however, is that you need different tools for different missions. It's a tough sell for one fighter to be a stealth bomber and a strike fighter all at the same time. Not to mention, multiple media reports say part of the plans for the F-35 have already been co-opted by the Chinese military through covert means, incorporating features of the F-35 into its own J-20 fighter. So the superiority element may be questionable if the emerging superpower's fighter is working with the same hardware.

Maybe it's the standoff in Crimea with Vladimir Putin that brings out the mutual military love between NATO nations, but the timing of the Canadian decision also coincides with the deployment of older Canadian CF-18 fighters in Poland. Even so, Canada does require a next generation fleet of fighters to patrol its own shared Arctic landmass with Russia and to properly contribute to future NATO missions.

In the end, the deal still isn’t yet publicly confirmed. But while Public Works Minister Diane Finley has been mum on the subject, media reports have trickled down indicating the Harper government will have its decision on the F-35 as early as this week. Stay tuned.