Canada and the F-35: Industrial Strategy Becomes Defence Policy

Canada’s participation in the US-led Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program began in 1997[1] as an aerospace industry initiative and emerged in 2010 as a fully formed air defence policy.

Setting aside for now the yet-to-be-debated question of Canada’s future air surveillance and interception needs and the merits of the F-35 aircraft for meeting those needs, the least persuasive argument in defence of the Government’s non-competitive selection of the F-35 fighter aircraft is the Prime Minister’s claim that the decision was really made in 1997.

That was when Canada put down an initial $10 million (US) to join the “concept demonstration” phase of the JSF program. At the time, critics, including this one, feared that industrial participation in the JSF would turn out to be a de facto defence policy decision to procure whatever aircraft emerged from the JSF venture.

Of course, the assurances at the time were all to the contrary. The Government of the day, and all of them since then, insisted that joining the JSF did not include a commitment by Canada to buy the end product. That was in fact the only credible position available. How could any responsible Government make a procurement commitment at the beginning of a lengthy research and development process in which there could be absolutely no guarantee that the process would in the end produce an aircraft that would 20 years later meet Canada’s particular air defence and surveillance needs? Yet, Prime Minister Harper now says, approvingly, that’s exactly what happened.

At the time, we were assured that the only decision made then was to buy Canadian industrial access to a major US weapons development program. That point was made recently by Alan Williams, the former senior defence procurement official who in 2002 signed the contract for Canada’s (US)$150 million contribution to the next phase of the JSF program, the System Development and Demonstration phase. Writing for the Defence Watch blog of David Pugliese, Mr. Williams said that “at no time did we commit to buying these aircraft. We entered the program with one main purpose; namely, to provide Canadian companies with an opportunity to compete for contracts in this multi-billion-dollar venture.”[2]

The Prime Minister attacked the messenger:  “In terms of the individual that you’re talking about,” Mr. Harper said in Winnipeg last week, “his advice was very different at the time that he was actually paid to give it.”[3] In fact, Mr. Williams’ consistent position is on record. In 2001 he appeared before the House of Commons Defence Committee with the then Defence Minister, Art Eggleton, to say: “We have not made any decision about the future aircraft we’ll use, and were we to participate [in the System Development and Demonstration phase], it would be with the objective of getting valuable access to wide-ranging studies that otherwise we would not be party to, and also allowing our industry to participate.”

So, the decision to join the JSF was really driven by two considerations – access to the US military aircraft development and production market for Canadian industry, and access to US research and development findings that would keep Canadian defence planners abreast of emerging aircraft technologies in anticipation of replacing the F-18, Canada’s current jet fighter.

Mr. Williams repeated the point in 2003 when he again testified at the Defence Committee: “The primary benefits for Canada of participating in JSF include providing Canadian industry with access to the largest U.S. defence program in the history of the Department of Defense, providing DND with access to the full range of technical data flowing from the JSF program, reducing the purchase price of the JSF should Canada elect to buy this aircraft, and finally, providing the Government of Canada with royalties from the sale of the joint strike fighter aircraft to non-partner nations” (emphasis added). He didn’t say Canada was therefore committed to buying the JSF; instead he made it clear that no decision on purchase had been made.[4]

The present Defence Minister, Peter MacKay, recently reinforced the understanding that Canada was under no commitment or obligation to buy the F-35. On May 27 he was asked for clarification by the NDP Defence Critic, Jack Harris, during a session of the Standing Committee on Defence:  “Mr. Chair, did I take the minister’s earlier comments in my last round of questions to mean that the government has already decided to purchase planes from the joint strike group fighter program?” And Mr. MacKay replied: 

“Mr. Chair, the hon. member is mistaken. None whatsoever….The joint strike fighter is one of the two aircraft, and there may be others. But I think those are the two main contenders that we are looking at.”[5] In other words, the Minister of Defence insisted even this year that alternatives to the F-35 were under active consideration.

But just last week in Winnipeg, Prime Minister Harper told an industry audience in Winnipeg that because the Canadian Government had already paid $150 million into the Joint Strike Fighter program, to help Canadian firms get development contracts for it, it would make no sense to consider any other aircraft: “Why would you now consider buying anything else.”[6] 

So now the Prime Minister insists that we have to accept the 1997 decision – which was not about buying an aircraft for the Canadian Forces but was about buying access for Canadian industry to a forthcoming US procurement program – as the final decision on a new fighter aircraft selection for Canada 20 years later. An industrial commitment made in 1997, a decade and a half before anyone had any idea what kind of aircraft would come out of the process, is now to be taken as an unshakable commitment to accept whatever that R and D process produced – a multinational process over which Canada, as a junior among junior partners, had no real influence.

In other words, an industrial strategy decision in 1997 is now to be taken as a firm defence policy decision in 2010.


[1] Canada has been a participant in the JSF program since 1997, when it contributed (US)$10 million for the Department of National Defence to participate in the Concept Demonstration phase. During this phase the two US bidders, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, developed and completed prototype aircraft. That process led to the selection of Lockheed Martin as the JSF manufacturer in 2001. In 2002, Canada joined the System Development and Demonstration phase with an investment of (US)$100 million, with an additional (US)$50 million contributed through federal Canadian technology investment programs. This phase runs through 2015. In 2003, the United States invited the current partners to participate in the Production, Sustainment and Follow-on Development phase of the program, and in December 200, Canada signed the JSF Production, Sustainment and Follow-on Development Memorandum of Understanding. DND projects the cost to Canada for this phase to be about (US)$551 million from 2007 to 2051. [DND, “Canada’s Next Generation Fighter Capability: The Joint Strike Fighter F-35 Lightening II.”]

“Government of Canada Invests in R&D Technology for Joint Strike Fighter Program, 2 September 2008.” Government of Canada News Centre.;jsessionid=ac1b105330d514fd77ad446b41fd90d7edcb1f04e3ec.e38RbhaLb3qNe38TaxuMa3qOay0?crtr.sj1D=&mthd=advSrch&crtr.mnthndVl=7&nid=417259&crtr.dpt1D=&crtr.tp1D=&crtr.lc1D=&crtr.yrStrtVl=2002&

For a broader view of the JSF and F-35 program, including costs, see: Kenneth Epps, “Why Joint Strike Fighter aircraft? Program costs rise and benefits carry risks,” Ploughshares Briefing 10/3, August 2010.

[2] Alan Williams, “Open Competition Needed For Canada’s New Fighter Aircraft Procurement Says Former Senior Procurement Official,” in David Pugliese’s Defence Watch. July 27, 2010.

[3]  “F-35 fighter strategy tug-of-war,” Politics and the Nation, Vancouver Sun Blog (7 October 2010).

[4] “F-35 fighter strategy tug-of-war,” Politics and the Nation, Vancouver Sun Blog (7 October 2010).

[5] May 27, 2010.

[6] Paul Turenne, “PM defends F-35 purchase,” Winnipeg Sun, 7 October 2010.

This entry was posted in Defence and Human Security and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *