In The Media

Canada to Buy F-18s From Boeing to Shore Up Its Fighter Fleet

by Ian Austen (feat. David Perry)

The New York Times
November 23, 2016

OTTAWA — In what may be another blow for Lockheed Martin’s hopes of selling F-35 fighter jets to Canada, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday that it would buy 18 F-18s from Boeing as a stopgap while it spends up to five years considering a long-term replacement for its aging fighter fleet.

The previous Conservative government announced in 2010 that it would buy 65 F-35s. But two years later it backtracked and began a review after an independent audit found that the Lockheed Martin fighters would cost far more than anticipated: $45.8 billion to buy and operate the planes over a 42-year life span.

During last year’s election campaign, Mr. Trudeau pledged he would not buy the radar-evading F-35, which has become one of the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons programs in history. Instead, he promised to find a more economical alternative.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau’s government did not go that far, perhaps out of concern that excluding Lockheed Martin from bidding could lead to legal challenges. Harjit Sajjan, the defense minister, said Canada would continue to be a member of an international group of nations contributing to the development of the F-35. Judy Foote, the minister in charge of procurement, said Lockheed Martin could renew its sales pitches during the long-term review.

If it takes a full five years, that review will not conclude until after the next federal election in Canada.

The latest version of the F-18 has been widely seen as the F-35’s chief competitor in any sale to Canada. Mr. Sajjan said the 18 fighters would allow Canada to retire the oldest airplanes in its fleet, which is made up entirely of CF-18s, the Canadian variant of the F-18. With the infusion of new aircraft, Mr. Sajjan said, the CF-18 fleet should continue flying until the end of the next decade.

“The interim fleet provides the most effective way forward to help ensure Canada remains a credible and dependable ally,” Mr. Sajjan said after repeatedly criticizing the Conservatives for delaying the acquisition of a long-term replacement for the nation’s fighter jets. The Liberals’ new review, though, will further extend that process.

David Perry, a senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa, said technology differences with the new F-18s meant that the government would also have to acquire additional service equipment and other infrastructure.

“There are just a whole lot of things that come with buying 18 aircraft,” Mr. Perry said. Once that investment is made, he said, buying F-18s as the long-term replacement “will definitely be more cost effective” than buying F-35s. Cost, however, is not the only factor in the government’s decision.

Given the amount of time the previous government spent studying the F-35, Mr. Perry said he did not understand why the Liberals needed five years for their review.

“This particular project has been studied to death,” he said.

Canada began flying the CF-18 in the 1980s. It originally had 138 fighters, but now they number 77. Last year, the Conservative government announced an upgrade program costing 400 million Canadian dollars, about $300 million, that it said would extend the fleet’s operating life to 2025.

Conspicuously absent from Tuesday’s announcement was the cost of the new F-18s. That will be a matter of negotiation with Boeing, Ms. Foote said, adding that the government would reconsider its options if it is unable to obtain an acceptable price.

During last year’s campaign, the Liberals priced F-18s at 65 million Canadian dollars each. At that time, it estimated that each F-35 would cost 175 million Canadian dollars. Those estimates have been questioned, and Lockheed Martin has said that once the F-35s are in full production, the price will be more like 75 million Canadian dollars. Those prices excluded spare parts, training and a variety of other costs that are normally included.

Canada is not the only country to use F-18s as a stopgap. Australia purchased 24 of them five years ago during the wait for its F-35s.

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