The first of 88 new F-35 fighter jets will be delivered to Canada in three years, beginning a process of replacing the country’s aging fleet of CF-18s that the federal government says will be complete by 2032.
The government announced its interest in the jets last year, but on Monday provided details of the $19-billion purchase, the result of a deal with the United States government, aerospace company Lockheed Martin Corp. and aircraft-engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney.
Defence Minister Anita Anand told a news conference the first four F-35s will be delivered in 2026, the next six in 2027 and another six in 2028. The full fleet will be in place to enable the phase-out of the CF-18s by the end of 2032, she said.
The announcement coincides with this week’s North American Leaders’ Summit in Mexico City, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Defence Department gets approval to spend $7-billion on 16 F-35 fighter jets, sources say
Orchestrating the purchase of the jets has been a long and halting process. The former Conservative government of Stephen Harper committed to buying F-35s and launched a pair of procurement efforts. But in the 2015 federal election that brought the Liberal Party to power, Mr. Trudeau campaigned against buying the aircraft, saying they were too expensive.
In government, with Mr. Trudeau as Prime Minister, the Liberals eventually came to accept that F-35s were the best option for replacing the 1980s-era CF-18s. On Monday, Ms. Anand described the purchase as the largest one for the Royal Canadian Air Force in about 30 years.
“The F-35 is a modern, reliable and agile fighter aircraft used by our closest allies in missions across the globe. It is the most advanced fighter on the market and it is the right aircraft for our country,” she told the news conference.
The F-35 has a maximum speed of Mach 1.6, or 1,975 kilometres an hour, and a range of 2,200 kilometres. It has a service ceiling of just over 15,000 metres.
Robert Huebert, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary who studies Canadian security, said in an interview that the purchase will give Canada the advanced technology it needs to defend itself and its allies against threats that could include military advances by Russia and China.
He described the move to buy F-35s as one of Canada’s most important procurement decisions, and noted that the country also faces decisions on investment in submarines and frigates.
Ms. Anand said the aircraft will provide pilots with enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
Pressed to explain the government’s reasons for shifting back to the F-35s, Ms. Anand said the decision was the result of a fair, open and competitive procurement process.
“In addition to ensuring that our country will be protected and our obligations to NORAD and NATO will be maintained, we are also ensuring that economic benefits from this procurement will flow to the Canadian economy,” she said.
The minister said the acquisition and initial maintenance of the F-35s could contribute over $425-million annually to the Canadian economy, and close to 3,300 jobs annually over 25 years, in part because of the need to build and operate extensive support systems for the aircraft. Ms. Anand noted that there will be a need to construct modern fighter squadron facilities in Bagotville, Que., and Cold Lake, Alta.
She said the jets will be able to operate in the “unique environment of Canada, specifically the Arctic, with its cold weather and short, icy, wet runways.”
The $19-billion price tag includes the jets, associated equipment and weapons, as well as training and services to maintain the aircraft. Operating and maintaining the fleet will bring its total cost to about $70-billion over its decades-long lifespan, officials told a briefing ahead of Ms. Anand’s announcement.
Because Canada is one of eight partner countries that has funded the F-35′s development costs since 1997, the officials said, it will be paying the same amount per plane as the U.S.: about US$85-million.
Dave Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said in a statement that Canadians should watch the implementation of the overall project, beyond buying the planes.
“Getting the aircraft is probably going to be the easier part. There’s a huge personnel shortage across our military, and the RCAF is short on fighter pilots and technicians specifically, so getting enough human talent will be critical,” he said.
“Building all the new infrastructure required to operate the aircraft in Canada on schedule will also be key to getting the aircraft operating on time. The manufacturer has built hundreds of planes and is building hundreds more, but we haven’t modernized our fighter infrastructure for decades.”
Conservative defence critic James Bezan accused the Liberal government of contradicting itself on the issue, saying in a tweet that Mr. Trudeau claimed he would never buy the F-35, then wasted years on “rusted out” Australian F-18s only to realize the Conservative plan was right all along.
The government spent about $400-million on used F-18s from the Royal Australian Air Force, and launched a $1.3-billion program to extend the lifespans of the jets it already owned.
“The fact is Trudeau has failed to provide our military with the equipment they require now,” Mr. Bezan said.
NDP deputy defence critic Randall Garrison said in a statement that years of political games between the Liberals and Conservatives have left Canada’s armed forces without the equipment they need to do their jobs.
Even with the purchase of the F-35s, Canada will not have met its obligations to NATO, which requires that each member country devote 2 per cent of its GDP to military spending. The Parliamentary Budget Officer said last summer that Canada would have to commit an additional $75.3-billion before the end of 2027 to meet that spending target.
With a report from the Canadian Press
Defence Minister Anita Anand says Canada has reached a deal to buy 88 F-35 fighter jets to replace its aging CF-18s. The decision represents an about face for the Liberals after they initially promised not to buy the aircraft.
The Canadian Press
For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.