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Canadian F-35 exit could signal wider air force review

Canada’s change of government this week, after a decade of conservative rule, could see Ottawa swiftly exit the multinational F-35 programme and instead pursue a fighter competition, which defence analysts suggest could favour the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or F-15SE, or Dassault's Rafale.

The incoming Liberal Party has pledged to ditch Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and “immediately” launch a competition to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 77 active Boeing CF-18s, following years of indecision. The new government is also withdrawing the service’s six fighters, one tanker and two surveillance aircraft from the US-led air campaign in Iraq, and is de-emphasising the service’s expeditionary combat role in preference of homeland defence and air patrol.

Withdrawing from the F-35 programme is the first step in what some say will be a wider rationalisation and recalibration of military spending, similar to the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010. Buying a less expensive, off-the-shelf fighter primarily for the air interdiction and patrol role, instead of the F-35, would free up the air force’s procurement allocation, allowing it to explore other much-needed platform recapitalisations, such as of its Airbus A310 tanker/transports and Lockheed CP-140 maritime patrol aircraft, says Michel Merluzeau, vice-president for aerospace strategy at Frost & Sullivan.

Canada could even invest in airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and surveillance platforms, such as the Boeing 737-based E-7 or Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye. The latter company's RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle might even be examined for long-range surveillance.

“The Arctic mission is primordial,” says Merluzeau, who previously worked for Public Works and Government Services Canada on the F-35 analysis of alternatives. “Consequently, the Artic mission goes beyond tactical air missions. You have to look into a series of capabilities that involves more than a single-engine aircraft: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic warfare, tankers.

“I don’t think Canada can honestly say they’re competitive with just an F-35 to conduct those missions over the Artic. The relevance of Canada would get a serious boost from this decision, because you’ll have a more self-deployable and self-capable force.”

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Canada's CF-18s were procured form 1982 to 1988 and are being life-extended to 2025

Royal Canadian Air Force

Boeing’s Super Hornet is the natural fit to replace the CF-18 over the F-35, says Merluzeau, but for Artic patrol missions the F-15SE and Rafale would excel. Choosing France’s Rafale would be a departure from Canada’s long-standing preference of US equipment. However, Dassault’s “trump card” could be to build the fighter in Canada.

“Beyond three aircraft per month, Dassault has got to tool up,” says Merluzeau. “It would be difficult for Boeing to say ‘we’ll assemble the F/A-18s in Canada’, considering the problems in St Louis right now” – where both the F/A-18 and F-15 are assembled. Merluzeau does not rate the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen’s chances, despite the considerable capabilities of both aircraft.

David Perry, senior defence analyst for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, says a procurement of 65 Lightning IIs is not affordable, and would require “some accounting jujitsu” to fit within Canada’s limited defence budget.

The conventional take-off and landing F-35A costs just under $100 million, but there is also the lesser known cost of basing, training and long-term support and maintenance. Canada spends just over $18 billion annually on defence, and the budget is due to grow by 3% annually starting in 2017.

Perry says the CF-18 replacement project hasn’t moved forward an inch since 2012, and even took a step backwards to the “options analysis phase”. The previous government has bought some time by life-extending the "Classic" Hornet to 2025, but the new administration must move quickly to get a replacement in line.

Perry says he does not expect a serious impact to Canada’s aerospace industry by withdrawing from the F-35 programme. Statements by Lockheed and Pentagon officials indicate that Canadian suppliers will continue to supply parts, although they would be likely to miss out on future sustainment work.

Lockheed also is competing for a “substantial contract” to provide the combat system for on the new Canadian Surface Combatant, Perry adds.

“In the past in Canada, there have been companies that engaged in scorched earth tactics if they had unfavourable outcomes on programmes. I think this would be a very different scenario, because [F-35] is not the only game in town.”

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