OTTAWA - A former F-35 test pilot says Canada likely benefited from not purchasing the stealth fighter more than a decade ago, but that the time has come for Ottawa to finally end its waffling and commit to the aircraft.
Retired Royal Canadian Air Force lieutenant-colonel Billie Flynn also defended the F-35’s performance and reliability, which along with the stealth fighter’s cost remains a source of consternation in Washington and elsewhere.
"The F-35 is the most watched, observed and scrutinized procurement in history," Flynn said in an interview. "It has turned out to be — albeit later than anyone ever hoped for — as survivable, as effective and as lethal as promised."
The Liberal government launched negotiations last month for the purchase of 88 F-35s, entering what many hope is the homestretch in Canada’s agonizing search for new fighter jets to replace the air force’s aging CF-18s.
The negotiations with the U.S. government and American defence giant Lockheed Martin come 12 years after the previous Conservative government kicked off a firestorm of controversy by announcing Canada would buy 65 F-35s without a competition.
Flynn, who joined Lockheed Martin as an F-35 test pilot in 2003 after a 23-year career in the Royal Canadian Air Force, said Canada avoided many of the F-35's early teething problems by not moving ahead with that original purchase.
Not only has the cost per plane come down over the years, Flynn said, but the F-35’s software "is dramatically more advanced now than it would have been had Canada purchased airplanes 10 years ago." Canada also plans to buy more F-35s than before.
"So more airplanes, less price, better capability," said Flynn, who left Lockheed Martin in October 2020.
"Ten years ago, Canada ... would have been there for the growing pains that the United States Air Force went through. Those are all gone now. There are benefits to buying into a mature fleet."
Experts have nonetheless said there is no denying the costs incurred, including the investment of billions of dollars to keep the CF-18s in the air while the military waits for new fighter planes. Faith in the procurement system has also been shaken.
Meanwhile, the F-35 continues to experience problems, some of them significant.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office, the equivalent of Canada’s auditor general, released two reports last year outlining "critical deficiencies" in the plane that threaten its development and use.
Those include ballooning operating and maintenance costs that endanger the stealth fighter’s long-term viability, delays developing a simulator to properly test the F-35’s abilities and shortcomings, and ongoing hardware and software issues.
An internal report by the Pentagon’s weapon tester obtained by the Project on Government Oversight also revealed numerous other problems that the Washington-based watchdog accused American officials of trying to hide.
Richard Aboulafia, one of the world’s leading F-35 analysts, said the cost of buying the stealth fighter has come down over the last decade as more than 600 of the fighter jets have been delivered to the U.S. and other allies.
In a report last year, Aboulafia found the type of F-35 that Canada is planning to buy cost about US$84 million each in 2019. That compared to US$112 million per stealth fighter in 2015.
Yet while the F-35 has also proven to have "pretty impressive" capabilities, with the U.S., Britain and Israel all having deployed it on combat missions, Aboulafia said the stealth fighter remains a "work in progress" because of the cost and software issues.
He nevertheless predicted that Canada will be happy with the aircraft, saying: "This is why the bulk of other NATO countries have reached the same conclusion."
Flynn said it is normal for issues to regularly come up with a new piece of military equipment. But he argued the level of scrutiny surrounding the stealth fighter is unmatched thanks to its high profile and the involvement of partners such as Canada.
"When I landed ... after a test flight, an hour later, staffers in the Senate and Congress would know what happened on my flight or to any of my peers," he said. "They will always find problems with the airplane to improve it over time."
Flynn said he is upset the federal Liberal government has still not fully committed to buying the stealth fighter, which he described as another needless delay.
When the government announced it was launching negotiations to purchase F-35s, it left the door open to buying Sweden’s Saab Gripen instead if talks with Lockheed Martin and the U.S. government stall.
The negotiations are expected to last seven months and, despite what Defence Minister Anita Anand described as a "rigorous" competition to get the best jet at the lowest cost with the most economic benefits, officials have said the scope of the talks will be broad.
"What government agencies have been told is not to just jump in and start racing ahead working on F-35 incorporation into the RCAF," Flynn said. "Ordering them not to work on the program until it’s all finalized has just introduced another delay."
Those delays, Flynn argues, include waiting to train pilots and mechanics and putting off important infrastructure upgrades at air force bases. It also means the military can’t move ahead on buying new air-to-air refuellers.
"It relates to everything in terms of the structure of the military adapting to this new fighter," he said. "So all that hard work, the RCAF will be behind when it comes time for them to train and adapt to this new airplane."
Officials have said they hope to have a final contract finished by next year, with the first F-35 delivered around 2025.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2022.