OTTAWA—The federal government finalized a massive about-face on Monday, announcing it will spend $19 billion to acquire 88 F-35 fighter planes — jets they once derided as an unnecessary nightmare for taxpayers.
The full price tag could soar to an estimated $70 billion over the next few decades, officials said, factoring in the cost of owning and operating a fleet of planes also in use by militaries around the world, despite persistent criticisms they aren’t working as well as they should for the price.
The largest investment in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 30 years is an essential one, Defence Minister Anita Anand said Monday in announcing the deal to buy the jets was done.
“As our world grows darker, with Russia’s illegal and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific, this project has taken on heightened significance especially given the importance of interoperability with our allies,” she told a news conference.
The announcement is the latest for the Liberals as they seek to rejig Canadian defence policy and spending; in June, they announced $4.9 billion to improve Arctic security and in November launched the long-awaited Indo-Pacific strategy that includes bolstering Canada’s military presence in the region.
It also precedes a get-together this week between U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — pressure for Canada to up its game with regards to its defence spending and readiness is a long-standing ask from the U.S.
Since the early 1990s, the U.S. has been at the forefront of programs to develop new fighter planes with Canada, Britain, Australia, Italy, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands all signing on to share the costs of development for Lockheed Martin’s F-35.
For Canada, the process began under the Liberals, led by Jean Chrétien, and was continued by the Conservatives under Stephen Harper when they took power in 2006.
But their decision to sign what was then a $9-billion contract for 65 F-35s ended up a political boondoggle with both the auditor general and parliamentary budget officer arguing the costs were being vastly underestimated.
On top of that, there were questions about whether the jets were the best fit for a key Canadian region — the Arctic.
Concerns about their range or if their navigational systems would work in the far north created doubts about whether the plane should be Canada’s marquee fighter jet.
The Conservatives’ handling of the file was among the factors that led to a vote of non-confidence in their minority government in 2011, triggering a general election that gave them a majority.
Still, the Conservatives punted buying the planes after an external auditor’s report pegged the cost at $45.8 billion over 42 years.
During the 2015 campaign, Trudeau vowed the Liberals would never buy F-35s, citing the technical specifications and the price tag.
“That F-35 might be Stephen Harper’s dream, but I can tell you for Canadian taxpayers, it’ll be a nightmare,” he said on the campaign trail.
The Liberals then opened up a competitive bidding process to replace Canada’s aging air force, but ended up back where it all began — with the F-35s, made by aerospace giant Lockheed Martin with Pratt & Whitney.
The Liberals had announced last March they were proceeding with the F-35s; Monday’s announcement laid out the next steps.
In a statement, the company said it was “honoured” Canada had chosen the planes.
“The F-35 is the best in the world, providing unmatched interoperability to America, Canada and the additional 15 nations that have selected the fighter,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Schmidt, the executive officer for the F-35 Joint Program Office.
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“It is a global game-changer.”
The deal could create 3,300 jobs annually and inject hundreds of millions into the economy over the next several years, Anand said.
Anand said the plane has “evolved and matured” and is being used by other Arctic countries. The ones Canada will receive will include capabilities specific to the demands of the North, while at the same time Ottawa will spend to make sure military infrastructure is ready to support them, she said.
For example, the government will buy tankers to provide air-to-air refuelling capability to increase the range of the jets.
The politics of the price tag, however, remain.
In a statement, the NDP’s deputy defence critic noted that Trudeau had promised to buy a cheaper plane and that’s not what was happening.
“Clearly, today’s news suggests the government is not interested in getting the best value and is leaving Canadians on the hook to pay for their bad decisions,” Randall Garrison said.
The Conservatives — who’ve previously said they regret they didn’t buy the F-35s years ago — played political I-told-you-so.
“(Trudeau) wasted years and taxpayer money on rusted out Australian CF-18s, only to realize the Conservative plan was right all along,” defence critic James Bezan said on social media.
“The fact is Trudeau has failed to provide our military with the equipment they require now.”
Though Canada’s fleet might contain Arctic-level upgrades, concerns about the model Canada and numerous other countries use — the F-35A — persist globally.
Multiple countries have grounded their fleets — or been told to do so by the F-35 Joint Program Office — after accidents, including a crash in Texas in late December.
In South Korea, the news agency Yonhap reported this fall that their planes were considered “operationally unready” 234 times over 18 months, due to malfunctions and issues acquiring parts for defects, though the air force in that country said it did not put the country at risk.
Even U.S. leaders have raised concerns. A July report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office flagged the fact an increasing number of planes can’t fly due to engine problems.
Meanwhile, one U.S. Rep. John Garamendi said this spring that plans to buy any more of the planes were a “fool’s errand” until the maintenance issues can be figured out.
Anand said Monday that Canada is buying an initial set of 16 F-35s and will place further orders over the coming years.
The first planes should be delivered in 2026 and the fleet should be operational between 2032 and 2034, Anand said.
The planes are replacing the fleet of CF-18s, which by 2032 will have been around for 50 years.
With files from The Canadian Press
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
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