by David J. Bercuson
January 20, 2019
The saga of Canada’s search for a new fighter aircraft to replace the CF-188 (known as the CF-18) continued last fall when, in September, the United States granted permission to Canada to acquire 25 F-18s from the Royal Australian Air Force. U.S. permission was needed because the aircraft were built in the United States and their transfer to Canada involves U.S. technology, even though that technology is 30 years old. The jets will be based at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake in Alberta. They will supplement the 75 or so CF-18s that Canada is still flying from its first purchase in the 1980s and keep the air force flying until the entire CF-18 fleet is replaced in the mid-2020s.
The timing was ironic. In the week that permission was granted, Britain’s Royal Navy began conducting test takeoffs and landings with one of its new F-35s from the deck of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, now undergoing sea trials. It is the first of its two new 65,000-tonne carriers. Not long after, a Marine Corps F-35B (Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing) carried out a first attack on a ground target in Afghanistan. The U.S. military, including a Marine Corps squadron, is now flying about 350 F-35s. Israel is flying F-35s operationally and 11 other nations have ordered or are beginning to receive them, including Australia, which will replace its F-18s with them.
The story of the F-35 is a long one, beginning with first proposals in the 1990s for an aircraft that did not exist. Many of the specifications laid down by the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy were in the realm of fantasy, not to mention those of other partners in the program, such as the United Kingdom. Technical problems abounded and costs ballooned. It is the most expensive fighter ever built by far, even though the unit cost is declining as more and more aircraft are delivered.