The Canadian government announced on January 9 that it had finalised an agreement with its US counterpart, along with Lockheed Martin and Pratt & Whitney, for the acquisition of 88 F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighters for an estimated cost of CA$19bn (US$14bn).
This major acquisition marks Canada’s largest investment in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in the past 30 years and will see the air arm’s current, but ageing fleet of legacy Boeing CF-188A/B Hornet multi-role fighters, which are due to be withdrawn from operational service by the end of 2032. Canada is expecting to receive its full complement of 88 F-35As before the Hornet is retired from use, with the first four Lightning IIs scheduled to be delivered in 2026 (a year later than initially planned), followed by six in 2027 and another six in 2028. The nation also anticipates that the RCAF will reach Full Operational Capability (FOC) with its entire Lightning II fleet sometime between 2032-2034.
Commenting on the recently finalised F-35A deal, Canada’s Minister of National Defence Anita Anand said: “In today’s complex global environment, Canada requires a military that is flexible, agile and capable of responding to a variety of unforeseen situations. We are committed to ensuring that our current and future aviators have the most advanced equipment possible to do just that. Canada requires a fighter fleet to contribute to the safety and security of Canadians and protect the sovereignty of one of the largest expanses of airspace in the world. We are thrilled to announce today [January 9] that Canada has selected the F-35 as the fighter aircraft that will fill this important role.”
Selected as the CF-188A/B’s successor as a result of the Future Fighter Capability Project competition on March 28, 2022, Canada’s formal acquisition of the F-35A will enable the RCAF to enhance its Arctic and national security commitments, while enabling greater commonality and interoperability with other NATO allies that operate the type. Specifically, the move will help bring the RCAF more in line with the US Air Force (USAF), US Marine Corps (USMC) and US Navy, all of which operate different variants of the Lightning II family and contribute to the aerial protection of Canada and the continental US under the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
USAF Lt Gen Mike Schmidt, program executive officer with the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), said: “Canada is our friend and a close ally. Their decision to procure almost 90 jets underscores the value of the incredible F-35 Lightning II. 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. It is a global game-changer. Through power-projection, the F-35 is at the tip of the spear for deterrence. Its forward presence will continue to ensure that potential adversaries choose diplomacy over armed conflict.”
As well as the 88 F-35As, this estimated investment of CA$19bn (US$14bn) will also cover the cost of associated equipment, sustainment set-up and services, as well as the construction of type-specific Fighter Squadron Facilities at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Bagotville, near Saguenay in Quebec, and CFB Cold Lake in Alberta – both of which are currently home to Hornet squadrons. Canada still plans to upgrade its CF-188A/B fleet – which was recently supplemented by 18 second-hand legacy Hornets (comprising 12 single-seat F/A-18As and six dual-seat F/A-18Bs) from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) – to keep the fleet operationally viable until its retirement in 2032.
Domestically, the F-35A acquisition and the type’s initial sustainment in RCAF service has the annual potential to contribute more than CA$425m to Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) and nearly 3,300 jobs per year for Canadian aerospace/defence industry and value chain partners over a 25-year period.
Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne added: “Our world-class Canadian industry is well positioned to continue to participate in new fighter capabilities, providing key components and services right here in Canada. This will help grow Canada’s aerospace and defence industries in cutting-edge technology for decades to come, with opportunities in both production and sustainment of the Canadian and global fleets.”
Initially, Canada began investing in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme in 1997, with the RCAF concluding that the platform was the most cost-effective replacement for its CF-188A/B fleet. However, the Canadian government faced controversy regarding its planned F-35 purchase when it initially announced plans to acquire the type in 2010. After being elected to power on October 19, 2015, Canada’s Liberal Party – led by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – rejected a straight purchase of the Lightning II in favour of reopening a fair and open competition.
In July 2020, the Canadian government revealed that three bidders had been downselected as prospective suppliers of a CF-188A/B replacement: Boeing (F/A-18E/F Super Hornet), Lockheed Martin (F-35A Lightning II) and Saab (JAS 39E/F Gripen). However, in a controversial move, Canada eliminated the Boeing offer from the competition on December 1, 2021. While Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) would not comment on the reason why the decision to drop the F/A-18E/F was made, it was assumed to be in response to Boeing’s formal complaint to the US Commerce Department that Ottawa was unfairly subsidising an airliner being manufactured by Montreal-based rival firm, Bombardier.