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The decisions by two “holdout” major Western powers, Germany and Canada, to acquire the F-35 leaves no doubt regarding the unique contributions that this aircraft can make to both national and NATO security. Multiple analyses and flyoffs by these two countries and others have ended with the same conclusion: the JSF is the best choice with respect to overall value, capability, price, and even maintainability for nations needing to modernize their tactical fighter fleets in the first half of the 21st century.
Canada was one of the original countries, along with the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Australia, and Turkey, in the JSF consortium. Canada invested hundreds of millions in the development of the F-35 and has signed billions of dollars in industrial contracts. The original plan was for Canada to acquire nearly 100 F-35As to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force’s aging F/A-18s.
However, a new government in Ottawa headed by Justin Trudeau appeared to have buyer’s remorse and put the acquisition on hold in favor of an open competition. The results of that competition proved what more than a dozen countries around the world have concluded, which is that the JSF beats out all its potential rivals. The Canadian government’s official press release regarding its intention to acquire 88 F-35As made clear why the JSF was selected:
“Canada is confident that the F-35 represents the best fighter jet for our country at the best price for Canadians. During the finalization phase of the procurement process, the U.S. government and Lockheed Martin with Pratt & Whitney successfully demonstrated that an agreement to purchase the F-35 fighter jets meets Canada’s requirements and outcomes, including value for money, flexibility, protection against risks, performance, and delivery assurances.”
Canada’s decision was based, in part, on its recognition that eight countries already were successfully operating F-35s, providing demonstrable evidence of the aircraft’s performance, price, and sustainability. Both the U.S. and Israel have employed their F-35s in combat.
Because of the timing of its acquisition decision, Canada will be able to avail itself of the latest upgrades to the F-35. Canadian JSFs will be the Block 4 version which capitalize on the provision of new computing capabilities and power generation to support additional sensors, an improved electronic warfare capability, enhanced data fusion, and at least seventeen new kinetic and non-kinetic weapons.
In addition, Canada and the other F-35 operators will benefit from the current plans to provide an improved engine for the F-35. Currently, the JSF is powered by the Pratt & Whitney (P&W) F135 engine. The Joint Program Office is looking at options for an enhanced powerplant. This would be either an engine enhancement package for the F-135 or an entirely new engine.
The Canadian analysis of the advantages of the F-35 mirrors those of other countries. Switzerland surprised many, particularly in Europe, last year when it chose the JSF over the Eurofighter, Rafale, and F/A-18E/F. It was not surprising that the Swiss determined that the F-35A was more capable than its competitors. What was remarkable was the conclusion by the evaluators that the F-35A would be less costly to acquire, maintain and sustain over the platform’s lifespan.
The fact that the F-35 was the most affordable, maintainable, and sustainable fighter aircraft in the Western world is due, in large measure, to years of effort by the F-35’s team, led by prime contractor Lockheed Martin, and by engine maker P&W, to lean out production processes, improve parts reliability, implement predictive maintenance practices, and manage a complex supply chain.
Germany’s decision to acquire the F-35 followed a course even more torturous than that navigated by Canada. In order to maintain its role as the nation responsible for NATO’s nuclear deterrent, Germany faced an urgent requirement to replace its obsolescent nuclear-capable Tornado jets 2030. While the F-35A was intended from its inception to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, the German government did not want to buy the JSF for fear this would undermine its own efforts to develop a sixth-generation fighter.
Initially Berlin hoped to turn the Eurofighter into a nuclear bomber. When the required alterations to the aircraft and certifications proved too onerous and time-consuming, Germany shifted its attention to the extremely capable F/A-18E/F. But again, the problems of reconfiguring the aircraft for the nuclear mission proved insurmountable. In addition, the survivability of non-stealthy aircraft against a high intensity air defense environment was questionable, at best. Finally, with time running out, Berlin bowed to the inevitable and signed a multi-billion dollar deal to buy 35 F-35As.
Being a member of the JSF club brings with it enhanced interoperability. By joining the F35 community, Canada and Germany will gain not only the world’s premier fifth-generation fighter, but also access to the knowledge base developed by all members with respect to such topics as new air operations, innovative tactics, improved maintenance threat data bases, and advanced training. There is a global F-35 logistics systems in place with depots and maintenance facilities around the world.
As tensions with Russia and Chinese continue or worsen, demand for the F-35 will likely increase, both from countries currently acquiring the aircraft and from those that want to purchase the JSF. Finland followed Switzerland and Poland by choosing to buy 64 JSFs. NATO members Greece and the Czech Republic have expressed strong interest in acquiring the F-35. India, which has acquired a number of U.S. air platforms including the C-17, P-8, C-130J, and Apache attack helicopter, has been mentioned by some observers as a potential future candidate for the JSF family. With the Block 4 improvements coming online and an improved or new engine in the works, the F-35 will continue to attract buyers well into the 21st century.
Expert Biography: A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Daniel Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates and System Planning Corporation.