Canada buying F-35s as defence minister says once-maligned jets have ‘matured’

By Lee Berthiaume

Canada is officially buying the F-35 fighter jet, ending the years-long search to replace the aging CF-18 fleet where it first began.

Defence Minister Anita Anand announced Monday that Canada reached an agreement with the United States and F-35 maker Lockheed Martin to buy 88 of the aircraft at an estimated cost of $19 billion.

Officials at a technical briefing before the formal announcement pegged the full cost of owning and operating the fighter jets over the next few decades at $70 billion.

“The F-35 advanced fighter aircraft fleet will ensure that our aviators have the long-term ability to defend the second-largest airspace in the world,” Anand said.

“It will help us to meet our Norad and NATO commitments and it will also deliver concrete economic benefits to our country.”

As first reported by The Canadian Press last month, Anand said Canada is buying an initial set of 16 F-35s and will place further orders over the coming years.

The first four aircraft are scheduled to be delivered in 2026, though officials say they will initially be located in the U.S. as the Canadian military prepares the necessary facilities.

Royal Canadian Air Force pilots and technicians will train at bases in the U.S. while those preparations are underway, with the F-35s scheduled to actually arrive in Canada no earlier than 2029.

The Canadian Press reported last month that the Defence Department had been authorized to spend $7 billion on an initial set of 16 F-35s and associated gear.

Officials confirmed in a briefing Monday that Canada will buy the 88 jets in a phased approach, with the initial price tag including infrastructure upgrades, spare parts and other one-time costs.

They also said Canada will end up paying the same as the United States — about US$85 million per plane — because it is one of eight partner countries that has been paying for the F-35’s development costs since 1997. 

Canada has so far spent US$712 million to remain at the table with the U.S., Britain, Australia, Italy, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government first committed to buying 65 F-35s without a competition in 2010, before concerns about the stealth fighter’s cost and capabilities forced the government back to the drawing board.

The Liberals promised in 2015 not to buy the F-35, but to instead launch an open competition to replace the CF-18s. They later planned to buy 18 Boeing Super Hornets without a competition as an “interim” measure until a full competition could be launched.

Some questioned that plan, suggesting the Liberals were trying to find a way to lock Canada in to the Super Hornet without opening itself up to a legal challenge from Lockheed Martin or any other jet makers.

But the government cancelled the plan after Boeing launched a trade dispute with Montreal aerospace firm Bombardier. Ottawa initiated the current bidding process in July 2019, and both the Super Hornet and F-35 were allowed to compete.

Asked about the Liberal government’s change of mind, Anand said: “The aircraft has matured. And we see now that many of our allies, eight countries in particular, are using the F-35.” 

In the meantime, the government has been forced to spend hundreds of millions of additional dollars on the CF-18 fleet to keep it flying until a replacement is available. By 2032, the CF-18s will have been around for 50 years.