Canada has finalised an agreement with the United States and weapons maker Lockheed Martin to purchase 88 F-35 fighter jets, the government announced, as it seeks to upgrade the country’s ageing fleet.
During a news conference on Monday, Defence Minister Anita Anand said the $14.2bn ($19bn Canadian) deal marked the largest investment in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 30 years.
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“As our world grows darker, with Russia’s illegal and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the Indo-Pacific, this project has taken on heightened significance, especially given the importance of interoperability with our allies,” Anand said.
The announcement comes as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to meet with US President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a “Three Amigos” summit in Mexico City this week.
Canada, which has a close defence relationship with the US, has been trying for more than a decade to replace its fleet of aging Boeing CF-18 fighters, some of which are more than 40 years old.
The first four F-35 aircraft are anticipated to be delivered in 2026 with full operational capacity for the fleet expected between 2032 and 2034.
The project’s $14.2bn ($19bn Canadian) budget includes the cost of infrastructure setup, weapons and other related expenses in addition to the price of planes, which are estimated at about $85m ($114m Canadian) each.
The full life cycle of the programme is expected to cost $52bn ($70bn Canadian), however, which has drawn some criticism and questions in Canada.
“As winter sets in and Canadians struggle to make ends meet, it is irresponsible and unjust for the Trudeau government to spend public money on American warplanes,” the No Fighter Jets Coalition activist group said in a statement in late December.
“Instead, the federal government should invest in affordable housing, health care, education, economic assistance, and climate action. Canada’s planned F-35 procurement is unacceptable and immoral and must be canceled.”
In 2015, Trudeau also campaigned on a promise to scrap a plan by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party government to buy the F-35s. Instead, he said his Liberal Party would launch a bidding process to replace Canada’s fleet.
“We know that choosing to cancel the F-35 procurement by the Conservative government and choosing instead to replace with a competitive [bid] from the many alternatives out there, we will be saving tens of billions of dollars in the coming decades,” Trudeau said at that time.
But on Monday, Anand said the F-35 agreement would help Canada meet its military commitments at home and better work with allies in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“Together, these projects will sharpen our military edge to keep Canadians safe and they will create economic opportunities for our country,” the defence minister said.
Maintaining and operating the jets should involve approximately 3,300 jobs and add $317m ($425m Canadian) annually to Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) over 25 years, she added.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said it was inevitable that Canada would opt for the F-35, especially since many other western allies have bought the jet.
“The Liberals opposed the purchase a few years ago when they were in opposition. They did so because the Conservative government favoured it,” Wiseman said.
“Unlike Americans, Canadians generally oppose increased defence spending and the F-35 is expensive,” he said. “The proposed purchase received public blowback when the Conservatives were in office and the Liberals wanted to capitalise on it.”