What’s Driving Canada’s Procurement of the F-35?

Tasneem Jamal Conventional Weapons, Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2011 Volume 32 Issue 1

Supporters and critics of the proposed purchase by Canada of 65 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft, also known as the F-35, agree on one thing: the mission determines the kit, not the other way around. Rona Ambrose, Minister of Public Works and Government Services, repeatedly made this point before the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence (SCND) in the fall of 2010: “As you know, the procurement process does not drive the requirements; the requirements drive the procurement process” (SCND 2010a).

On the evidence available, however, the JSF purchase has not followed these rules. The detailed jet fighter requirements seem to have been created after the fact and are still not publicly available (Meyer 2011). The decision by the current Canadian government to purchase “next-generation” or “fifth-generation” fighter aircraft to replace aging CF-18 jet fighters is directly tied to the timing and contents of the Canada First Defence Strategy (DND 2008), a 21-page document publicly released on June 19, 2008.

The significance of Canada First for this government cannot be overstated. The Harper government has produced only this one formal policy paper on defence and foreign policy in its five years in office.

As it stands, Canada First is actually quite short on policy analysis. It is better understood as a military shopping list.

The evolution of Canada First can be traced through the Conservative Party election platforms for the 2006 and 2008 federal elections, as well as government policy announcements and documents in May and June 2008. The general idea to purchase new fighter jets was introduced early in this process in lists of major maritime, land and air platforms, but the notion of a “next-generation” jet fighter did not appear in policy documents until June 2008. 

On May 12, 2008 Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay verbally announced the strategy. Accompanying media releases stated: “The government’s comprehensive plan [is] to ensure Canadian Forces have the people, equipment and support they need to meet the nation’s long-term domestic and international security challenges” (PM 2008). This Canada First Defence Strategy included “proceeding with the major combat fleet replacements of surface combat ships, maritime patrol craft, fixed-wing search-and-rescue aircraft, fighter aircraft and land combat vehicles and systems” (PM 2008; emphasis added). 

There is no indication that replacing fighter aircraft was or would become a priority among these many equipment platforms. Not until June 19, when the complete policy document Canada First Defence Strategy was released, is the qualifier next-generation attached to “fighter aircraft” (DND 2008, p. 4). The number of units needed, 65, also appears for the first time.

With the words “next-generation” the die was cast. Then, as now, there was only one “next-” or “fifth-generation” jet fighter available to the Canadian Forces: the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter. The superior and far more expensive F-22 Raptor, already in service with the US Air Force, is a “fifth-generation” jet fighter, but is not being sold internationally. There are Chinese and Russian “fifth-generation” jet fighters reportedly in development, but these are not seen as viable options by Canada.

In fall 2010 the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defence held a series of hearings in the wake of the July 16 announcement by the Government of Canada of the intent to purchase 65 JSF. Testimony was provided by cabinet ministers, senior government officials and Canadian Forces officers on the rationale for using sole-sourcing procedures for the JSF purchase and authorization for the policy. 

Justifying the F-35
The Defence Minister harked back to Canada First Defence Strategy to justify the purchase of the JSF:

As a fifth-generation aircraft, it is the only plane that can fill the requirement laid out in Canada First defence strategy…. It’s a capability that we need for our sovereignty, for patrolling our airspace and for ensuring that we can shoulder our share of the NATO and international load, and lead by example. (SCND 2010a)

The capability referred to is the stealth-enabled technical advantage advertised for the JSF. Minister Rona Ambrose stated before the SCND:

The Canada First defence strategy two years ago committed us to purchasing a next-generation fighter. So the Defence Department and Public Works research has confirmed that there is only one next-generation fighter available for purchase by Canada. (SCND 2010a)

Later in the proceedings Ambrose also drew attention to the fact that Canada had been engaged directly in the JSF program for some years—Canada became officially linked to the JSF program as early as 1997. This also played a role in the selection of the JSF: “Following on its participation in the Joint Strike Fighter program and its commitments under the Canada First defence strategy, the Government of Canada announced on July 16 its intention to procure 65 F-35 Lightening II aircraft” (SCND 2010a).

That the Canadian Forces had also determined that the JSF met its operational requirements was reiterated by Industry Minister Tony Clement, who noted the added benefit of spinoffs for Canadian industry: “By investing in the Joint Strike Fighter program, not only is the government equipping the Canadian Forces with a state-of-the-art aircraft, but it is also opening up unprecedented opportunities for Canada’s aerospace industry, including the creation of highly skilled, well-paying jobs for Canadians” (SCND 2010a).

Contentious in the SCND debates were the role and timing of the production of a statement of requirements for Canada’s next jet fighters. If only one product could meet the statement of requirements for new fighter aircraft from the Department of National Defence, then there was no need for a competition. Indeed, Ambrose assured the committee that such a process would be inappropriate: “To change the statement of requirements to hold a competition for the sake of holding a competition when we know there is only one plane available that meets these requirements would be, frankly, dishonest” (SCND 2010a). The purchasing decision therefore could go directly to sole-sourcing procedures.

At the October SCND meeting, Liberal MP Geoff Regan pressed officials on the timing of the creation of the statement of fighter jet requirements: “We’ve recently received a two-page list of high-level, mandatory capabilities for the next aircraft to replace the CF-18, and I have some questions regarding this list. When was this list written?” (SCND 2010b).1 Dan Ross, Assistant Deputy Minister (materiel) for the Department of National Defence, responded:

The statement of requirements for the next-generation fighter has been worked on over the past year. Public Works and Government Services had that in a final form last spring, because we had to consult with them on the question of whether or not to proceed under the PMOU or do a competition. (SCND 2010b)

Tom Ring, Assistant Deputy Minister for Public Works and Government Services Canada, nicely summarized the circular decision logic:

In the Canada First defence strategy, the government included a commitment to replace its fleet of CF-18 fighters with a next-generation fighter aircraft. Based on this commitment, the Department of National Defence developed a more detailed statement of requirements. My colleagues from National Defence have mentioned that already, and will speak further, I am sure.
As a result of this, National Defence advised Public Works that it had determined that only the F-35 Lightening II meets the requirements for a fifth-generation fighter capability. The Department of Public Works and Government Services validated this requirement, as established by the Department of National Defence. (SCND 2010a)

Canada First inserted the words “next-generation fighter” into the policy process between May and June 2008. Public Works confirmed that there was only one available “next-generation fighter.” DND then produced the requirements that confirmed that the JSF met the requirements for a “next- generation fighter,” but has not released the detailed requirements citing security concerns.

Whether this insertion was prompted by pressure on ministers by advocates for the JSF within the Canadian Forces,2 or from industry hoping to lock in access to JSF contracts, or from the US government  is unknown.3 What is clear is that the public explanations to date for this decision, the largest Canadian military procurement program in history, suffer from a puzzling internal circularity and a lack of transparency.

1. Officials claimed in the SCND hearings that some of the detailed requirements were classified and therefore could not be produced for Parliamentarians. Apparently an unclassified report has been written by DND dated June 2010 and entitled, “Statement of Operational Requirements: Next Generation Fighter Capability.” A request was made to DND for a copy of this document by Project Ploughshares on December 2, 2010, but no acknowledgement of the request or copy of the document has been received.

2. One media report (Meyer 2011) indicates that “military officials recommended the F-35 in 2006.” If this is in fact true it still does not explain the particular insertion of “next-generation” or “fifth-generation” into Canada First between May and June 2008.

3. Possible explanations could include approaches to the Canadian Government by representatives of the aerospace industry or from the US Government. Lockheed Martin or representatives from the Canadian Aerospace Industry Association working with Lockheed Martin could have made such approaches. The US Government may have made contact through its Embassy in Ottawa; or US Cabinet Ministers or Pentagon officials may have approached Canadian Cabinet Ministers, other politicians, or officials directly or through the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC. The federal Lobby Register may indicate if industry-related meetings or other communications related to the JSF took place in 2008. It is also possible that WikiLeaks cables could reveal communications on the JSF purchase between Canada and the US, either in 2008 or, more specifically, in the six-week period before June 19, 2008. WikiLeaks cables indicate a concerted campaign by US officials directed at Norway in 2008 to purchase the JSF (Cox 2010). As of January 23, 2011 it was reported that WikiLeaks had published 2,658 of a potential 251,287 State Department cables in its possession, or just over 1 per cent (Satter 2011). Future WikiLeaks releases may include documents that can confirm if a similar campaign was undertaken by the US State Department or other US officials or politicians to pressure the Canadian Government to confirm purchase of the JSF.

Canadian Department of National Defence. 2008. Canada First Defence Strategy
Cox, Bob. 2010. Cables reveal U.S. role in Norway’s F-35 order. Star-Telegram, December 17.

Meyer, Carl. 2011. Military’s failure to produce key F-35 document questioned. Embassy, February 16.

Prime Minister of Canada 2008. PM unveils Canada First Defence Strategy. May 12. 
Standing Committee on National Defence. 2010a. Evidence Number 24, September 15.
———. 2010b. Evidence Number 28, October 19. 

Spread the Word