Politics·Analysis

The high-speed hard sell: why the F-35 is coming to a Canadian air show

Canadians are about to get a close-up look at the F-35 in action at an upcoming Ottawa-area air show. It's a chance for military planners to see what one of the leading candidates to replace Canada's CF-18s can do - and for the aircraft's maker to deliver a high-gloss sales pitch.

Lockheed Martin's approach to the competition to replace the CF-18 relies heavily on marketing

A U.S. Air Force F-35A arrives at the Ottawa International Airport on Sept. 4. The warplane is part of a demonstration team that will take part in a local air show. The stealth fighter is one of three contenders in the bid to replace Canada's CF-18s. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

The F-35, the warplane Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised not to buy four years ago, touched down in Ottawa on Wednesday — on the eve of a federal election — as one of the leading contenders in the competition to replace the air force's aging CF-18 jet fighters.

The stealth jet's demonstration team will perform this weekend at an air show in Gatineau, Que., giving many of the capital's movers and shakers their first up-close look at an aircraft that has consumed a lot of oxygen in Canadian politics.

During the last election, the Liberals famously (or infamously) promised not to buy the F-35 and said they would opt instead for a cheaper aircraft, using the savings to refit the navy.

The jet's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin — the world's largest defence contractor — is among the bidders in the $19 billion competition launched by the Liberals in July to supply Canada with 88 jets. Lockheed Martin is making its case both behind closed doors and through a marketing campaign that includes billboards throughout the capital region and a heavy social media presence.

A Lockheed Martin billboard touting the benefits of the F-35 outside of the Ottawa International Airport. The U.S. defence giant is conducting a marketing campaign as part of its bid to win Canada's fighter jet competition. It is - so far - the only one of the three competitors to make its pitch directly to the public. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

The U.S. Air Force demonstration team that will be taking the F-35 through its paces this weekend fits into that marketing effort with its use of slick cockpit videos — the most recent of which was shot over Niagara Falls, Ont. Wednesday morning, prior to the arrival of a pair of F-35s at the Ottawa International Airport.

"The really cool things about the airplane are not going to be on display out there this weekend," said Capt. Andrew 'Dojo' Olson, the demonstration team leader. "So if they think the demo is cool, they have no idea how cool the other stuff is."

Olson is referring to the stealth jet's top secret features, many of them related to the aircraft's ability to network with other units in the field — both in the air and on the ground — and gather electronic intelligence.

The F-35, the Joint Strike Fighter, was conceived originally as an economical stealth fighter to replace a whole series of other aircraft, including the F-15 Strike Eagle, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the A-10 ground attack aircraft and the FA-18 (a class of aircraft which includes Canada's CF-18s).

It rapidly morphed into the Pentagon's most expensive program; some U.S. publications have estimated its cost at $1.5 trillion over its 55-year lifetime. The development of the F-35 has been plagued by glitches and delays.

Still, the jet is now operational in nine countries. with other nations (including Poland) lining up to place orders. Olson said the fact that the F-35 is flying missions around the world is a major selling point, adding the aircraft has the potential to make a difference in a major conflict.

US Air Force Capt. Andrew 'Dojo' Olson, the commander of the F-35 Demonstration Team, arrives in Ottawa on Sept. 4, 2019. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

"When we go out there with all the variants, all the surfaces, all the partners, we're speaking F-35 and we're a very formidable fighting force ..." he said.

Without the generational leap in technology the F-35 represents, "you really run the risk of being irrelevant in certain areas of operation. That's just a fact."

The F-35 has been described occasionally — and sometimes inaccurately — as a first-strike weapon, a warplane to be used in an attack on the first day of a conflict.

The jet has been designed to operate in hostile skies, Olson said. He claims it can go where older aircraft designs cannot.

"If you want to be lethal and survivable with all your friends in those areas, it's got to be done in fifth generation," he said, referring to the F-35's design.

Alex McColl is a defence researcher who wrote his master's thesis on Canada's troubled CF-18 replacement program for the University of Calgary. He said most of the future missions Canada's defence planners envision for the new fighter call for something that looks an awful lot like the best aspects of the F-35.

"All of the strike scenarios are peer-level strike scenarios against adversaries with state-of-the-art Russian equipment," said McColl, whose in-depth paper favoured the Swedish competitor, the Saab-built Gripen.

One scenario in the request for proposals, for example, involves Canada's future fighter jets evading Russian-style air defences to bomb an airport.

"That is heavily biased towards the F-35. And it is such an aggressive use of the F-35 that I don't even think the Americans would ever do that," said McColl, whose research is available through the University of Calgary website. 

In any such scenario, he said, the U.S. would take out the anti-aircraft batteries remotely with cruise missiles, or B-2 or B-21 bomber strikes, before sending any fighter jets — including the F-35 — into a contested airspace.

A U.S. Air Force F-35A arrives at the Ottawa International Airport on Sept. 4. (Murray Brewster/CBC News)

Last week, one of the competitors in the Canadian contest, Airbus Military, announced it was dropping out, citing the strict NORAD intelligence and security requirements and the cost they impose on companies outside of North America.

That led to speculation about whether the other European competitor — Saab — would also drop out. The company's CEO, in an interview with Swedish media a few weeks ago, said his company does not believe the fix is in for the F-35.

"In the last process that was closed, we had the same view, that is, it was very rigged for U.S. F-35," said Hakan Buskhe, who was quoted in July by Dagensindustri (Di), a business and finance publication.

"The countries that have chosen F-35 have had almost the same procurement document. We do not have the same view today, but we have the view that it is an open procurement."

Lockheed Martin, Saab and the third competitor, Boeing, have until next winter to submit their bids.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

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.

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