Canada Plans Purchase of 88 F-35 Stealth Jets: Did Renewed Tensions with Russia Spur Action?

Following a protracted years-long selection process for a new generation of fighters to replace Canada’s fleet of ageing CF-18 Hornets, Ottawa has moved forward with plans to acquired Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters from the United States. The fifth generation F-35A had been competing with a much lighter fourth generation fighter, the Swedish Gripen E, for the contract, with prior competitors the European Eurofighter, French Rafale and Boeing F-18E Super Hornet all having previously been eliminated. This marks the latest of multiple victories for the F-35 over both the Super Hornet and European designs, with European producers in particular having been disappointed by failures to gain contracts in Finland, Switzerland and Belgium. The Gripen E had the advantage of the lowest operational costs of any Western fighter and greatest ease of maintenance, as well as avionics on a similar level of sophistication to the F-35, the ability to operate from very short runways, a supercruise capability for sustained supersonic flight, and access to the Meteor long range air to air missile which outperforms the American AIM-120. The F-35A is nevertheless generally considered a more cost effective aircraft, and despite much lower availability rates its radar evading stealth capabilities, more powerful sensor suite, and the much greater investment in upgrades for the program have made it much more popular. The F-35 is notably also compatible with the Meteor missile, although the missile would need to be purchased separately, and will by the end of the decade see a next generation of air to air missiles the likely much more capable AIM-260 become available for it. 

The Royal Canadian Air Force is expected to buy 88 F-35 fighters making it one of the very largest foreign clients for the stealth jet alongside Japan and Britain. The aircraft could begin deliveries as early as 2025, although with deliveries set to be protracted over several years Canada has already ordered 18 former Australian F-18A/B Hornets to supplement its current fleet of 75. Canada is one of the very last operators of the F-18 Hornet, which was developed as an enlarged derivative of the Vietnam War era F-5 with improved fourth generation capabilities. The F-35 was designed as a successor to the F-18 as well as the F-16 and Harrier II, and is the only fifth generation fighter in production in the Western world. It is one of just two fighters of its generation in production and fielded at squadron level strength anywhere in the world alongside the Chinese J-20.

The acquisition of F-35s is expected to place growing pressure on Russia, with Canadian and Russian military activities in the Arctic frequently causing tensions and Ottawa taking a hard line against Moscow alongside its NATO allies. Canada notably previously invested in the F-35 program as an industrial partner, paying $613 million into the program from 1997-2021 despite not committing to buy the fighter, which was seen to predispose Ottawa to acquire the stealth jets.  Nevertheless, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau previously slammed the fighter as “an aircraft that does not work and is far from working” amid growing controversies in the mid-2010s over the stealth fighter and its operational issues, despite the preceding conservative government having committed to acquire the aircraft. It remains a significant possibility that the rise in tensions with Russia and outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine on February 24 spurred the Canadian government to accelerate its decision to strengthen its air force, much as Germany unexpectedly decided on an F-35 purchase very shortly after the war began. 

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