A new Canadian government report suggests other fighter jets are just as capable as the Lockheed Martin F-35A at fulfilling the nation’s most likely mission needs, potentially opening the door to a competitive acquisition process to replace a fleet of 77 Boeing CF-18s.
Four aircraft – the F-35, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon – were compared in the report, called the Evaluation of Options for the Replacement of the CF-18 Fighter Fleet.
Each was assessed on its ability to carry out six mission sets including defence of Canadian airspace, responding to an “international event”, such as the Olympics, in Canada or a terrorist attack, peace enforcement, humanitarian disaster relief and state-on-state war fighting.
All aircraft were deemed low-risk candidates to perform each of the missions up to 2030 and beyond, except in fighting another peer nation. In that category, all the aircraft were deemed a higher risk platform beyond 2030 and none distinguished itself.
Canada does not intend to fight state-on-state wars and rated that contingency as highly unlikely. In the state-on-state war fighting mission, the range was from low to significant in the first timeframe and medium to high in the second timeframe “largely due to the higher level of potential threat confronting fighter aircraft in that mission and the evolution of those threats”, the report says.
“The mission needs analysis undertaken as part of the evaluation of options makes clear that Canadian engagement in future state-on-state conflicts will be highly unlikely,” the report says.
It is more likely that Canada will join in on coalition military actions not “clearly defined state-on-state warfare or explicitly humanitarian assistance missions but rather, as in the case of Libya or Kosovo, something in between,” the report says.
For now, the Harper Administration in Canada still intends to buy 65 F-35s beginning in 2020. Its third annual report on the cost of potentially replacing its fleet of CF-18s with the jet assumes an average per-unit cost of $88.9 million over the period of acquisition. That tallies up to a total $45.8 billion over the life cycle of the fleet, a $141 million increase over the estimate in the 2013 report.
The analysis assumes that Canada will lose 11 F-35As over the fleet’s expected 30-year service life due to normal attrition. "The cost to replace these lost aircraft could be in the order of $1 billion," the report says.
At present, the Canadian government has only $76 million set aside for programme contingencies, far short of the $1 billion estimate for replacement aircraft. The report says that contingency budget is “low for a project of this scope and size”.
That could force Canada to lower the number of F-35s it purchases, the report suggests. That could affect the overall programme cost. Lockheed has promised to bring the per-aircraft cost for the conventional takeoff and landing variant of the jet below $100 million by 2019, but that will require a dramatic ramp in production after 2016 that relies heavily on non-US purchases.