A tale of two fighter jets — and what it means for Canada's defence and place in the world

Canadians will at long last have a better idea this year which fighter jet the Liberal government intends to buy for the air force. The selection decision, however, is expected to have more significance than simply a choice between two shining, new, expensive aircraft: the F-35 or the Gripen-E.

Ottawa could decide this year on aircraft to replace country's aging CF-18s

Gripen, a Swedish fighter aircraft, performs on the second day of Aero India 2017 at Yelahanka air base in Bangalore, India, in February 2017. Saab, based in Stockholm, offered the latest version of the aircraft as part of its pitch to sell Canada a new fleet of fighter jets. (The Associated Press)

Canadians will get a better idea this year of which fighter jet the Liberal government intends to buy for the country's air force.

The decision amounts to more than a simple choice between two expensive new aircraft: the American F-35 and the Swedish Gripen-E. It's expected to say a lot about how the federal government sees Canada's place in the world — whether it remains tied to a politically shaky United States or to a Europe that is determined to step out of Washington's defence shadow.

Canada officially narrowed the field of bidders to two manufacturers on Dec. 1 by excluding Boeing. The federal government told the U.S. aerospace giant that its bid in the $19-billion program to replace the country's CF-18s did not meet Ottawa's requirements.

The federal government is expected this year to either select a winner and negotiate a contract or help the two remaining companies — U.S.-based Lockheed Martin and Saab, with headquarters in Stockholm — improve their bids.

The decision this year "will be a fork-in-the-road moment," said an expert in defence and military affairs.

The F-35 is manufactured by U.S.-based Lockheed Martin, one of two remaining companies bidding in the federal government's $19-billion program to replace Canada's CF-18 fighter jets. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

"If we buy the F-35, we would be more intricately embedding ourselves in an American military alliance, which we have been a part of for decades, but acquiring that particular aircraft would take that relationship up a couple of notches in a couple of different ways," said David Perry, a senior analyst and vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute based in Ottawa.

If the Swedish aircraft is chosen, it would be the first time in almost half a century that Canadians have flown something other than an American-designed warplane.

And going to Europe to buy the next fighter jet would be stepping outside decades of alignment with the U.S., particularly when it comes to continental defence, Perry said — which could lead to repercussions for the bilateral relationship between Canada and the U.S.

"I don't think the United States government would be very enthused to see us operating a non-American aircraft for the first time since ... the Spitfire," he said with a chuckle.

Decades of U.S.-designed warplanes 

Perry's assessment is close. The Royal Canadian Air Force flew the Spitfire, a British warplane, in the 1940s. The last European-designed warplane flown by Canada was the British de Havilland Vampire, a jet fighter that was retired in the late 1950s. Canadian pilots also flew the home-grown CF-100 Canuck up until the 1980s in a mixed fleet that included a bevy of American designed warplanes.

Aside from history coming down on the side of the Americans, another defence expert said modern alliances and rapidly evolving technology will weigh heavily in their favour.

Stéfanie von Hlatky, an associate professor and defence policy expert at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says she thinks the selection of the F-35 'is more of a foregone conclusion.' (Nishelle Walker)

"When I saw it narrowed down to the F-35 and the Gripen, I really felt that now the F-35 is more of a foregone conclusion," said Stéfanie von Hlatky, an associate professor and defence policy expert at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Sweden is not among Canada's longtime defence partners, she added, and when you look at who the military might be partnered with in future multinational operations, "it will make it hard to choose something other than the F-35."

It is a point Lockheed Martin has made repeatedly in its pitch to the Canadian government, calling the stealth fighter the most survivable, best value fighter.

"As a cornerstone for interoperability with NORAD and NATO, the F-35 will strengthen Canada's operational capability with allies," Lockheed Martin Canada CEO Lorraine Ben said, referring to the North American Aerospace Defence Command and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

"The F-35 gives pilots the critical advantage against any adversary, enabling them to execute their mission and come home safe."

Among the most crucial interoperability aspects being touted is the ability of F-35s from different nations to seamlessly share data with each other, as well as ground stations and warships. The fighter also has the ability to link with so-called fourth-generation fighters, which the Gripen-E is considered.

One of the other major interoperability considerations is how the choice of the new fighter will affect NORAD, the decades-old pact between Canada and the U.S. that is being renewed to meet newer and more sophisticated threats. Whether a Swedish-designed fighter would meet the stringent "two-eyes" security requirements of the partnership has been a matter of active debate — one that appears to have been resolved.

"We are approved by the Canadian government," said Ander Hakansson, a former Gripen test pilot and Saab's deputy campaign director in Canada. "We have the same, or very similar, systems in our technical solution as the American aircraft."

Being able to operate with allies and the capability of the aircraft are not the only deciding factors — and that is why Perry, of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, is not prepared to write off the Swedish bid.

"I don't share the view that this is done and dusted for Lockheed Martin," he said.

The benefits factor

The request for proposals allocated substantial points for economic benefit. The way the Joint Strike Fighter program is structured, there is only so much the F-35 proposal can deliver in terms of benefits and offsets to Canadian industry because the aircraft's contracts compete and are spread out across the consortium.

Saab, on the other hand, is pitching that Canadian Gripens be assembled in Canada (at IMP Aerospace & Defence in Nova Scotia) and more importantly that all of the intellectual property rights for sustainment and operations become the property of the federal government. That by itself is a significant concession that would give Canada sovereign control over its fighter jet fleet in a manner that has not been seen in decades.

"To have the capabilities in Canada [handled] by Canadians is a way to give Canada sovereign control over the system," said Stefan Nygren, Saab's campaign director in Canada.

The competition, which has dragged on in fits and starts for years, has demonstrated that Canada has been willing to consider something other than a U.S. warplane, Perry said.

That is significant because following the political meltdown over the former Conservative government's plan to sole-source the F-35 a decade ago, there was deep skepticism among European aircraft-makers that their proposals would be considered.

The decision by the Harper government was roundly criticized at the time by the auditor general, the parliamentary budget officer and the Liberal opposition of the day. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went so far in 2015 as to promise that Canada would not buy the F-35 and that the savings would be plowed back into recapitalizing the navy.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.