The controversial and long-debated F-35 fighter jet program, set to replace Canada’s aging CF-18s, is projected to cost Canadian taxpayers a staggering $73.9 billion over its 45-year lifespan, according to a recent report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer, Yves Giroux.
The comprehensive report factors in costs spanning the entire lifecycle of the advanced aircraft, from initial development and acquisition to operations, sustainment, and eventual disposal. Giroux’s figures reveal that the acquisition phase alone, which includes the purchase of the jets along with other preparatory activities, is projected to amount to $19.8 billion.
“In January, the federal government entered into an agreement with Lockheed Martin and the U.S. government for the purchase of 88 F-35 jets, with each plane priced around US$85 million,” Giroux stated. Then-defence minister, Anita Anand, had previously estimated the acquisition cost at $19 billion, with the total life cycle expense anticipated at $70 billion.
Giroux emphasized that his analysis largely aligns with government estimates. However, he did sound a cautionary note, stating that “a one-year delay in the program would cost approximately $400 million.”
The first quartet of the planned 88 aircraft fleet is slated for delivery in 2026. Subsequent deliveries are set to rise annually, peaking at 18 planes per year by 2029. Full operational capability of the fighter fleet is anticipated between 2032 and 2034. The final tranche is projected for 2032, with the last jet expected to retire by 2061-2062.
The F-35 program has witnessed its fair share of contention in Canadian political circles. In the late 1990s, while the Liberal government funded the jet’s development, they didn’t commit to its purchase. A dramatic shift occurred in July 2010 when the Conservative government, with Defence Minister Peter Mackay taking center stage at a high-profile news conference, announced their intention to acquire the jet. However, escalating costs and technical issues eventually led to the Conservatives retracting their commitment.
The 2015 election campaign saw Justin Trudeau promising not to invest in the Lockheed Martin-built aircraft, citing its incompatibility with Canada’s defense needs. However, in a surprising turn, Trudeau’s government not only committed to the purchase but also increased the order from the originally proposed 65 jets to 88.
Critics argue that the substantial funds earmarked for the F-35s would be better invested in sectors like affordable housing and healthcare. Moreover, concerns about the high maintenance costs of these stealth jets have been echoed by U.S. lawmakers, including Congressman John Garamendi, who, during April 2022 hearings, remarked, “We’re not going to buy more (F-35s) until we figure out how to maintain them. It is a fool’s errand. It is a waste of money by the taxpayers.”
Despite these concerns, supporters of the F-35 highlight its cutting-edge technology, noting that many of Canada’s allies have already integrated the aircraft into their defense arsenals.
Under the F-35 agreement’s framework, Canadian firms, based on merit, have the opportunity to compete for contracts. As per federal reports, Canadian businesses have already secured contracts worth more than $3 billion to manufacture parts for the F-35.
The Liberal government’s decision to invest in the F-35 program effectively concludes a debate that has spanned over a decade, during which the choice of aircraft to succeed the CF-18s, purchased in the 1980s, remained uncertain.