Skip to main content

A F-35 Lightning II, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), fighter aircraft seen as it arrives at Edwards Air Force Base in California in this May 2010 file photograph.HO

Last month, a pair of aging Canadian warplanes - built to battle Soviet jets - dropped four, 250-kilogram bombs on a Libyan ammunition dump. It was the first time in more than a decade that the CF-18s had seen any action.

Yet Canadians are going to plunk down at least $30-billion for 65 high-tech warplanes, known as the F-35, Lightning II or Joint Strike Fighter.

It is a 21st-century aircraft, capable of multiple roles: deep-strike bombing, high-intensity air-combat fighting and even close ground-support attack. And it's stealthy, meaning its surfaces are shaped and angled, covered with top-secret absorbent materials that make it almost imperceptible to radar. It can sneak deep into heavily defended airspace, full of threats far more daunting than the dilapidated anti-aircraft systems Canadian pilots confront in Libya.

Naysayers argue the F-35s are a terrible waste of money: Canada doesn't need new, top-of-the-line, radar-evading warplanes. Far from making a case about the importance of fighter-bombers, the Canadian government sidelined the CF-18s during the Afghan war, leaving Canadian troops to depend on air support from the Americans, British and Dutch.

Others claim Canada should wait, that the F-35s are the last of a dying breed - warplanes with pilots - and that it makes sense to hold out a decade or two for the dawn of unmanned, remote-controlled bombers and fighters.

But the risks of opting out include no longer being considered a first-rank ally and missing out on cutting edge technology. The inner circle of U.S.-led weapons systems is also an exclusive and perhaps too valuable a club to spurn - even if the F-35 is the last of its kind.

Mike Mullen is chairman of the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior military man in the world's sole remaining superpower. He sees a future where drones displace manned warplanes. Like all major military shifts - like the one from sail to steam - the transition will mean overlap.

"There are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter," Admiral Mullen has said. "I'm one that's inclined to believe that." He's also backing buying hundreds of F-35s to bridge the gap.

At least three different versions of the plane will be built. One that flies from regular runways, one that can be launched from aircraft-carrier catapults and another that hovers and lands vertically like a helicopter. If a middle power such as Canada, which can't build a complex and expensive warplane, wants the military punch they bring, it has to buy into a major, multinational program that spreads the costs across many hundreds of aircraft.

And the F-35 belongs to the only so-called, fifth-generation warplane program available.

Prototypes are flying and deliveries are only a few years away.

Canada's existing CF-18s are worn out and expensive to maintain. By the end of the decade, they will be 40 years old and unless they are replaced, Canada will lose any claim to having combat-capable warplanes.

"Without a top-notch fighter, Canada won't meet the test," said Angus Watt, a retired Canadian general who headed Canada's air force. "Others would have to do it." As for waiting until fully fledged combat-capable drones are ready, General Watts says that's decades away.

He adds that just because it may seem difficult to conjure up a 21st-century foe, modern nations still need to play an active role in international security.

His comments also echo what others say: Canada needs a seat at the high-stakes table of international power- the inner military circle of the United States, its close allies and industrial partners.

But the price of joining may be going up. The plane is going way over budget, way behind schedule and some customers are having second thoughts.

"The trouble with the F-35 is that it does a lot of things poorly at high cost," says Stephen Staples of the Rideau Institute in Ottawa and an outspoken critic of the program.

Several countries, the Netherlands and Denmark among them, are getting cold feet over its price. In Washington, some Congressional budget cutters also have set its soaring costs in their sights. If some nations back out, it will affect price: the cost per plane goes up for the rest.

The Rideau Institute's Mr. Staples says Canada doesn't need bombers. Instead, he suggests, it could buy cheaper, simpler warplanes capable of safeguarding cities from "the real threat, which is hijacked airliners."

But protecting Canadian cities from suicidal jihadists who hijack jetliners isn't an F-35 question. As long as Canada's combat aircraft are hours away at remote bases in Quebec and Alberta, far from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, then preventing a 9/11-style will depend on U.S. Air National Guard units stationed close to the border.

From an offensive standpoint, drones are already flying, albeit in a limited way. They are not yet ready for air-to-air combat.

Once used for surveillance, they're now also dispatched for remote-controlled strike missions: American Predators are "flown" by pilots sitting at desks outside Las Vegas who guide the missions - mostly assassinations - against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.

Other drones, like the very-long distance, high-flying jet, Global Hawk, flies from California, across Canada, over the North Pole and on to Afghanistan where it can loiter for 26 hours tracking anything bigger than a handcart.

Just as unmanned space exploration eclipsed "The Right Stuff" astronauts, unmanned warplanes portend the future. "Top Guns" will be replaced by deskbound pilots. Future attacks will be delivered by swarms of stealthy bombers capable of loitering for days near a target zone and then - on command from some far-distant bunker - striking hard and fast, and repeatedly. A man, or woman, may remain in the decision-making loop, but they will no longer be in the cockpit.

But no drone is ready for fighting in a full-blown air war yet.

Firing small missiles at jihadists in a mud compound in Pakistan's hinterlands from a "safe" height in uncontested air space is impressive remote-control warfare. But it doesn't approach the difficulty, complexity and risk of flying a warplane in hostile airspace, eluding missiles or fighting another sophisticated warplane.

That is what the F-35 can do.

In the narrower, military sense, armed forces know from bitter experience that once a type of combat capability is lost, it's almost impossible to get it back. For instance, Canada scrapped its last aircraft carrier in the 1960s, sinking its naval aviation program.

Canada's military also fielded Bomarc missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, until a raging controversy ended - apparently forever - Canada's dalliance with nuclear weapons.

Passing on the F-35s could be the death knell of Canadian combat aviation.

Whatever the politics of the pitchmen or the benefits of the hardware, convincing Canadians of the need for multi-billion military buys has always been difficult. Tanks, submarines, warplanes - they are especially difficult to sell to a nation that increasingly seems to prefer its military playing non-combat roles such peace-making and humanitarian assistance despite the decade-long Afghan war.

Or as Gen. Watts notes, "It's tough love for Canadians to embrace a combat aircraft."