Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 16 seconds.
As we approach the finish line of Canada’s Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP) — the competitive process to replace the legacy CF-18 — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Saab are scrambling to demonstrate why their proposals are the best fit for Canada and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). With capability, affordability, and economic benefits to Canada playing unequal, but important roles in the process, Canada must make the right decision to ensure the RCAF can continue to deliver on a proud tradition of excellence in tactical fighter capability — today, and well into the future. But after years of covering this story, a common-sense solution has emerged; we can no longer afford the Lockheed Martin F-35. Allow me to explain.
Capability is the highest point-getter in the Request for Proposal (RFP), and many would argue it should be. All three fighters boast an incredible array of next-generation capabilities. An honest assessment of technical progress reports, historical timelines, and field-demonstrated performance will expose who is delivering, who isn’t, and where the risks lie. The evidence in this regard is apparent and overwhelming.
Still, affordability is not considered by the RFP to be as important as capability; but the link is undeniable, especially in a post-COVID economy.
The last defense review — Strong, Secure, Engaged — determined Canada needed more fighter aircraft to protect its sovereignty and deliver on its defense partnership agreements than initially projected. That number grew from 65 to 88 fighters, and Canada’s current competitive fighter replacement process must deliver this quantity of aircraft as a mandatory requirement. This is the point where the Lockheed Martin F-35 option could fall out of contention.
Canada’s military procurement programs have a long history of being plagued by cost overruns and delays. But with no guarantees on costs, and numerous examples of allied nations abandoning their original F-35 order numbers, practical reality tells us the F-35 is simply unaffordable. The Dutch and British have cut their orders for F-35s nearly in half; the Italians by a third; and there is now credible talk of the United States Air Force (USAF) reducing its original planned F-35 intake by 40 percent. It appears the USAF has recently seen the value in upgrading proven and affordable airframes with the latest technologies — with the introduction of the Boeing F-15EX and big talk about a next-generation F-16 effort that would fall short of any stealth capabilities. The United States Navy (USN), the second-largest air power in the world, has chosen to invest heavily in the Boeing Block III Super Hornet and will operate nearly three times the Super Hornets than it will the F-35C. The USN’s massive investment and commitment to the Super Hornet will ensure it remains tactically relevant for several decades to come.
There is also no relief in operational costs with the F-35 option. Depending on your source, it will cost $36,000 per hour (on the low end) to operate the F-35, with an “effort” to reduce its cost per flight hour to $25,000 by 2025. Lockheed officials are on record indicating that this particular claim is using fiscal 2012 dollars, which puts you right back to where you started at $36,000 an hour using an average annual inflation rate of 2.63 percent.
The debate over the F-35’s fiscal challenges or its tactical relevance vis-a-vis Canada’s requirements are vastly overshadowed by its technical problems. In a post-COVID economy, it is simply unaffordable given the funding envelope of the FFCP. The economic benefits of this fighter replacement effort will matter now more than ever as Canada looks to recover from the new economic realities left behind by the global pandemic.
Of the three offerings, Boeing and Saab appear to be in a two-horse race to offer Canada affordable solutions that come with some significant economic benefits. Saab is the only company to offer a “built in Canada, by Canadians” solution. But there is little detail of what that actually means over the life of the procurement program. This would be the first time since Canadair manufactured the CF-5 Freedom Fighter that a fighter jet would be manufactured in Canada, which would be a significant win for the Canadian aerospace sector. However, given the small order of 88 fighters for Canada — plus the (at most) several hundred Gripens that are projected to be in service worldwide — would there be enough in economic spinoffs and job creation over the duration of the program for Canada when compared to, say, Boeing?
Working in Boeing’s favor is the fact that the USN is expected to operate at least 600 Super Hornets and Growlers for several decades to come. Several hundred more Super Hornets will be operated by other air forces around the world, which would potentially push the number of Super Hornets in service to more than 800. That could potentially mean more economic spinoffs for Canadian aerospace companies.
According to the economists at Ottawa-based Doyletech Corp, Boeing claims it will deliver $61 billion to the Canadian economy and create 250,000 jobs over the life of the project through a contractual guarantee.
Comparatively, Lockheed Martin will not commit to a contractual guarantee, but suggests the F-35 could yield $16 billion in economic benefits should its fighter be selected.
The Canadian aerospace sector needs support now more than ever, and the FFCP represents an important opportunity to provide that support.
So, where do we land? There is no question that all three fighter aircraft in the running would usher in a well-needed next-generation fighter capability for the RCAF. After covering Canada’s fighter replacement program for more than a decade, the choice is becoming more evident given the attributes of the remaining contenders.
The passionate, and often heated, bar banter will continue about the technical merits of each contender, and what fighter aircraft is right for Canada. But when it comes down to dollars and cents, there are only two choices that provide a minimum risk to the Canadian taxpayer, and would generate solid fiscal support to Canadian aerospace for decades to come: the Boeing Block III Super Hornet and the Saab Gripen E. Each of their capabilities are as different as their economic benefits to Canada.