OTTAWA — Canada has quietly made another multimillion-dollar payment toward development of the F-35 stealth fighter despite uncertainty over whether it will buy the aircraft and calls from some prominent Canadians not to purchase any new fighter jets.
Canada made the annual payment to the U.S. military in the spring, spending US$71.7 million to remain a partner country in the F-35 project. Each partner is required to cover a portion of the plane's multibillion-dollar development costs to stay at the table.
Staying in the program has advantages, as partner countries get a discount when purchasing the jets and compete for billions of dollars in contracts associated with building and maintaining them. The F-35 is being built by U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin.
While the new payment brings Canada's total investment in the F-35 to US$613 million since 1997, the government says Canadian companies have also secured more than US$2 billion in production and maintenance contracts related to the stealth fighter.
“Canada’s participation in the (F-35) program allows companies in Canada to benefit from contracts,” Department of National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in an email.
“Our latest payment … will continue to provide Canada with the option to buy the aircraft at a lower cost, and with priority access to the production line, should the F-35 be successful in the competitive process for the future fighter fleet.”
News of Canada's latest payment follows Switzerland becoming the latest to select the F-35 as its next fighter jet despite not being a partner country. That decision, however, has been met with some criticism from left-wing parties in the country.
There have also been concerns in the U.S. after Congressional auditors found the F-35 could be too expensive for the American military to operate due to higher-than-anticipated operating and maintenance costs.
Ottawa is poised to announce later this year which fighter jet will replace Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet. The government is planning to buy 88 new planes at an estimated cost of up to $19 billion.
The F-35, which is built by U.S. defence giant Lockheed Martin, is competing against American rival Boeing’s Super Hornet and the Swedish-made Saab Gripen.
The pending decision has galvanized dozens of Canadian singers, authors, politicians and activists, including Neil Young, David Suzuki and Michael Ondaatje, to sign a statement calling on the government to cancel its plans to buy new fighter jets.
“The expensive weapons are largely useless in responding to natural disasters, providing international humanitarian relief or in peacekeeping operations,” the statement reads. “Nor can they protect us from a pandemic or the climate and other ecological crises.”
The signatories also argue fighter jets contribute to climate change, and that the real cost over the full life of the planes will come to nearly $77 billion — money that would be better spent on other priorities.
“Instead of purchasing 88 new fighter jets, let’s use these resources for health care, education, housing and clean water,” reads the statement organized by the No Fighter Jets campaign.
“At a time of health, social and climate crises, the Canadian government must prioritize a just recovery, green infrastructure and invest in Indigenous communities.”
The government has defended the need for fighter jets to protect Canada and North America, and to conduct military operations abroad. Experts have said not having fighter jets would leave the defence of Canadian airspace to the United States.
The Conservatives under Stephen Harper announced plans in 2010 to buy a fleet of F-35 fighter jets on an untendered contract, but aborted that plan in 2012 once the full price became known.
Stephen Harper's Conservatives first announced plans to buy 65 F-35s without a competition in 2010, but backed off that plan over questions about cost and concerns over the Defence Department's tactics in getting government approval for the deal.
During the 2015 federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau's Liberals promised they would immediately launch an open and fair competition to replace the CF-18s, but not buy the F-35 before allowing the stealth fighter to compete.
Defence Department procurement chief Troy Crosby told The Canadian Press in an interview earlier this month that the government remains on track to finish evaluating the three bids later this year, with a contract signed next year.
The first new aircraft is expected to arrive in 2025 and the last in 2032, when the CF-18s will be around 50 years old.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 21, 2021.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly reported that Neil Diamond signed a statement calling on the government not to buy fighter jets. In fact, Neil Young signed the statement.