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Canada's war over the F-35


American defense commentators don't have a monopoly on arguing over the future of the F-35 Lightning II -- it's just as divisive, if not more so, among our friends to the north in Canada. In fact, if anything, the F-35 is a bigger deal for Canadians, garnering a level of national discussion that defense issues almost never get in the States.

Two examples presented themselves this weekend. First is this letter to the Edmonton Journal, where a writer who was involved with Canada's initial decision to join the F-35 club now says the jet wouldn't pass muster if it were under consideration today:

Frankly, under any comparison conducted today, the F-35 would fail, as it is currently under development and is not even operational. Second, [Canadian MP Laurie Hawn] says it will cost $9 billion for 65 aircraft. Not true. While others have claimed the costs to be much higher, the fact is no one, including Hawn, can state with certainty what these aircraft will cost. What we do know for certain is that the costs continue to go up. ...

Hawn is correct when he says, "we owe our men and women the equipment to do the difficult tasks we give them." However, to commit to purchase an aircraft whose capabilities are still unproven and for which we have no confirmed costs to acquire or to sustain is irresponsible. A competitive procurement will erase all doubts.

A column in the National Post expressed the views of Canada's F-35 supporters, who say the jets ultimately will be worth it:
... [W]hile opponents of the F-35 argue that Canada’s aging CF-18 Hornets can be replaced more cheaply with fourth- (and “fourth-plus-”) generation aircraft, they’re missing the point. Upgraded fourth-generation aircraft — like the American F-18 Super Hornet, for example — will surely be able to fly the kinds of missions Canada already participates in, but will essentially be obsolete from the moment we purchase them. Eventually fourth-generation aircraft will go the way of third- and second-generation aircraft: to the dump.

Fifth-generation fighters like the F-35 will have a qualitative edge over older models. Period. Our allies have gotten the message: Britain, Australia, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey and Norway will all be flying F-35s by 2020. Israel and Japan are likely to follow.

At the moment, the F-35's supporters seem to have the upper hand, and Canada will stay in the club despite the delays and rising costs. As the National Post's authors Alex Wilner and Marco Wyss wrote, it doesn't have much of a choice -- and they make one other interesting point:
Ideally, Canada will buy its military hardware from an ally. In doing so, we’ll avoid sending an unintended message with our purchase and we’ll pre-emptively grease the wheels in the event spare parts are needed during periods of crisis. It’s important, too, that Canada signs off with a manufacturer that will survive over the long haul. That will ease with maintenance, upgrades, and future developments.

In terms of fighter-jets, that leaves Canada with few options. We could approach the French or the Swedes. Both have sophisticated warplanes in the Rafale and Gripen but, like the Super Hornet, these jets rely on older technology. And given the huge investment needed to leap into the fifth-generation, both countries are likely to close shop. It’s possible that a European consortium will emerge in the future, but it’s a long shot. Several European partners have already invested in the F-35, so they won’t be inclined to support another venture. Like it or not, the era of the European fighter is coming to a close.

That leaves Russia and China. Both countries are actively developing next generation fighters to rival the F-35. Russia began testing the PAK-FA a year ago, while China unveiled its J-20 prototype in January. But are Canadians really prepared to fly Russian or Chinese jets? What would our allies think? The political and strategic ramifications would be monumental. Decisions over how best to arm Canada’s military are always complex, but there are lessons from the F-35 episode Canadians would be wise to consider in the future.

What do you make of this? Do you agree the era of the European fighter "is coming to a close?"


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