December 10, 2012

What It Really Means If Canada Ditches America's F-35

Canada's plan to consider ditching its order for American F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will have huge military and political repercussions.

First Canada must choose between the fifth-generation F-35 and various foreign early generation jet fighters to replace its aging CF-18 fleet.

Canada had narrowed its options down to the Dassault Rafale, British Aerospace Eurofighter, Saab Gripen, and the Boeing F-18 F/A Super Hornet.

Ditching the U.S.model could lead to interoperability issues, however, between Canadian and U.S. forces. Jacob Stokes from the Center for a New American Security told us this ability to communicate over shared platforms aboard the F-35 will have to be accomplished in other ways.

"Those problems can be overcome later with retrofitting and other interoperability programs, but such retrofits are never going to be as easy as flying the same planes," Stokes says by email. "The question then becomes, is the retrofit cheap enough to justify going with another model, or do you simply bypass the need for high level of interoperability?"

But those are just military questions. From a political angle, Canada's choice could be even more explosive.

The U.S. and Canada have done a pretty spectacular job of working together over the years despite a fair share of deep differences, but the news that Canada is looking at non F-35 fighters sent ripples through defense communities in the U.S. and around the world.

Canada's defense spending has increased from about $13 billion in 1999 to nearly $25 billion in 2012, giving lots of business to Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and more.

It's a far cry from the more than  $700 billion spent every year by the U.S., but few Canadians want to compete with the States on that front. 

Canada's defense spending is about equal to Germany in percentage of its GDP and that makes it the 13th largest military spender in the world and the 6th largest spender in NATO.

The cost is clearly a concern, but to many Canadians the price comes second to concerns that their country is getting bullied by the U.S. and being forced to share a warmongering path they have no interest in pursuing.

Canada was given a $9 billion estimate on the batch of F-35 they ordered from Lockheed, which ballooned up to $40 billion over the life of the plane. An amount not exactly twice the country's entire defense budget, but pretty close. If Canada does officially reject the F-35 and the units do not get picked up elsewhere, the plane will become even more costly for every other country signed up to buy them.

Larry Birns, Director of Washington-based of Council on Hemispheric Affairs says the impact of Canada's potential F-35 refusal is bigger than anyone can actually say at the moment.

Birns explains, "Canadian politics are much more polarized than U.S. politics — there is a ... movement in Canada and people who belong to that movement who accuse the U.S. of being warmongers, and who don't like deals with the U.S."

"You have a lot of elements at work here." Birns continued via a phone interview. "It's all part of a push-pull arrangement. Where we are right now the decision has been made to move back the [F-35] commitment and it may even be more drastic than we think."

How drastic no one can say, but not only will Lockheed Martin and the U.S. have to make the F-35 far more palatable to the majority of Canadian voters, they'll now have to compete with other contractors.

No doubt sales reps for foreign companies will be doing everything they can to make the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter look even less attractive to Canadian defense officials.

As Canada weighs its other fighter options, we've analyzed what they're likely looking at to replace the high-profile, high-tech, and highly-expensive F-35.

The following slides offer a look at the most likely contenders.