Canada’s recent contribution of CF-18s to NATO’s air campaign in Libya underscores the need to purchase F-35 jet fighters. Military interoperability with allies will be of paramount importance if Canada wants to use airpower to do anything other than defend its sovereignty in the coming decades.
In the future, the United States and most of Canada’s major NATO allies will be relying on the F-35. The benefit of joining them is guaranteed interoperability. Canada can decide to fly different models of aircraft into combat, but there are risks in doing so when part of a coalition that must be taken into consideration. When Canada flies F-35s alongside its allies in a future combat environment, it will ensure its pilots have the right tools to work expeditiously, effectively and safely.
When it goes operational, the F-35 will be the most sophisticated fighter jet on the international market. While the “fifth generation fighter” does not represent a technological revolution, it will certainly have a qualitative edge over older, fourth generation models like the CF-18. It will be the only multi-role fifth generation aircraft in the sky. Britain, Australia, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey and Norway have all queued up and will be flying F-35s by 2020. In addition, Israel and other friendly countries are also planning their own purchases.
The future rests with fifth, not fourth, generation fighters. The risk in spending a lesser fortune today on an upgraded version of the CF-18 is that Canada will find itself flying obsolete hardware before long.
Most importantly, though no alternative bids to the F-35 were entertained during the selection process, in reality there are virtually no competitors. The fighter jet industry has become increasingly polarized. The Americans and the Russians are the current heavyweights, China is catching up, and Europe is on the way out. Global trends matter, because where Canadians buy their weapons can be just as important as what they buy.
When a government decides to purchase military hardware from another country, it must also weigh the political and strategic signals it is sending to other states. The arms trade can be a political minefield.
Ideally, Canada will buy its next fighter from an allied state. In doing so, it will avoid sending an unintended political message and will pre-emptively grease the wheels in the event spare parts are needed during periods of crisis or war. It is important, too, that Canada signs off with a producer that will “stay in the game” over the long haul.
Canada could purchase sophisticated aircraft from a number of sources. The Eurofighter Typhoon, the French Rafale, and the Swedish Gripen are all excellent options, comparable to the upgraded F-18 Super Hornet. But all of these aircraft rely on older, fourth generation technology and will eventually be outpaced and outclassed by the F-35 and its cohort. Furthermore, pointing to Indian or Australian purchases of fourth generation competitors to the F-35 as evidence that Canadians have attractive alternatives neglects the fact that both purchases are intended to fill medium-term gaps in national capability rather than replace fifth generation options altogether. Australia has signalled it will fly the F-35 and India has already bought into a Russian fifth generation fighter project.
The era of the European fighter is coming to a close. Averting a European decline will require the establishment of another multinational consortium – like the one behind the Eurofighter. But any consortium, which would ideally by reinforced by French and Swedish involvement, is unlikely to take place given that several European states have already partnered with the U.S. on the F-35 project.
Canadians are right to debate their continued participation in the exorbitantly expensive, imperfect, and risky JSF program. And yet, Canada has few good alternatives. Arguments suggesting Canada can replace its aging CF-18s with souped-up, fourth generation versions, ignore the bigger picture: these planes, no matter the upgrades, will eventually go the way of third and second generation aircraft – to the dump. Russian and Chinese fifth generation jets are in development and are likely to challenge the F-35.
A modern air force will require fifth generation technology, and unless Canadians are prepared to fly Russian or Chinese jets into combat, the F-35 is the only option left.
Dr. Marco Wyss and Dr. Alex Wilner are Senior Fellows with the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Wilner is also a Fellow with the Macdonald Laurier Institute in Ottawa.