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This article was published 16/12/2011 (3125 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
There is no chance that Canada will cancel its order for about 65 F-35 joint strike fighters.
That fact was underlined again this week with reports from Japan that before Christmas, Tokyo will announce its intention to buy as many as 50 of the state-of-the-art stealth warplanes.
Japan made its choice after having the kind of long, hard look at rival aircraft -- the Typhoon Eurofighter and Boeing's F-18 -- that critics in Canada have insisted the Harper government should have undertaken before it decided to order a fleet of F-35s from Lockheed Martin without a formal bidding process.
With Japan now having finally decided to opt for the F-35, 10 of Canada's allies including Australia, Israel and tiny Singapore -- have reached the same conclusion as the Harper government: that the joint strike fighter is the best choice to deal with emerging security threats in the 21st century.
Largely as a result of Japan's decision to buy the F-35, South Korea is also expected to purchase as many as 60 F-35s. Turkey may confirm the purchase of 100 joint strike fighters before the end of the year, too. India is another country urgently considering whether to buy the jet, also known as the Lightning II.
Australia has been so keen to acquire the F-35 that when its order for about 100 of the new aircraft was delayed, Canberra chose to purchase a small number of F-18 Super Hornets, which are largely based on 30-year-old technologies, as a stop-gap measure until it can receive its joint strike fighters.
Originally designed to cost about $35 million per aircraft, because of cost overruns and delays, the F-35 is now the most expensive weapon procurement program ever undertaken. Orders taken so far are worth about $300 billion and counting.
Despite its staggering cost, the jets' capabilities have appealed to Western governments deeply concerned with how quickly China is acquiring aircraft carriers and expanding its blue water and sub-surface navy to project military power far out into the Pacific Ocean. Beijing is also building a fleet of icebreakers to operate in the Arctic Ocean.
Developed with seed money from the U.S., Australia and six NATO partners including Canada, the joint strike fighter collaboration incorporates state-of-the-art stealth technologies that Beijing and Moscow are known to be aggressively pursuing.
Japan is to spend $6 billion on its F-35s, or about $120 million per aircraft. Britain confirmed last week that it would buy 30 F-35s at a cost of about $140 million per aircraft. However, some of the aircraft that are part of the British order are a more expensive naval variant than the model the Royal Canadian Air Force is buying.
Canada has estimated it will pay about $75 million for each of its new fighters. This is undoubtedly on the low side, but calculating and comparing the actual per unit costs for fighter aircraft is notoriously difficult because each country buys a jet with somewhat distinct technical capabilities and uses different arithmetic to tabulate the purchase price and repair and maintenance costs over the expected 40-year flying life. The more F-35s that are ordered, however, the lower the per unit cost for every country buying the aircraft.
The Liberals, New Democrats, peace groups and some commentators in Canada have been sharply critical of the Harper government's plans to purchase the F-35. As well as demanding a bidding process, they have asserted that there should have been a public debate about whether Canada needed such an expensive, sophisticated fighter jet.
But as happened with Canada's involvement in the war in Afghanistan and unproven allegations regarding the mistreatment of Taliban detainees, the F-35 purchase has never become a significant issue for voters.
This does not excuse or disguise the fact that the Harper government, the military and Lockheed have done a dreadful job of explaining the fighters escalating costs and the economic benefits of the F-35 to Canadian aerospace and high-tech companies. Nor have they said much about why Canada's closest allies are almost unanimous in wanting the same aircraft that Ottawa is acquiring even though it costs so much.
At a time of shrinking defence budgets, Japan has apparently decided the F-35 is its best option, although the fighter costs at least 50 per cent more than the Typhoon and the Super Hornet. Japan opted to go with the largely untested, but far more advanced aircraft joint strike fighter, although the Typhoon performed well for Britain's Royal Air Force during NATO's Libyan bombing campaign.
The sale to Japan is seen as vital to the F-35's future. The new aircraft has been dogged by steep price increases and vexing technical issues mostly related to a U.S. Marine Corps variant of the aircraft that Canada and Japan are not purchasing.
The controversy over the lack of a formal bidding process for the F-35 in Ottawa, which the Liberal government of the day first committed to in 1997, has largely ignored the reality that Canada also did not have an open competition when it recently spent several billion dollars to acquire C-130 J Super Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III transports.
Both of these new aircraft were used extensively to support Canada's operations in Afghanistan and against Libya. If the C-130-J and C-17 had been put through an official tendering process, and the only alternative to those transports -- the Airbus consortium's A400M -- had won, the RCAF would still be without any new transport aircraft. This is because the A400M's development is years behind schedule. Hobbled by technical and financial issues, it has attracted far less interest from international buyers than the Super Hercules or the Globemaster III.
Matthew Fisher is a Postmedia columnist.
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