Several months after Canada signed a deal with Lockheed Martin to purchase 88 F-35 Lightning II fighter jets, a Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) report has predicted severe price escalation that could cost the Canadian taxpayer billions of dollars more than was initially agreed upon.
In a new report released on November 2, the parliamentary budget officer estimated that the cost to Canadian taxpayers of owning and operating a fleet of F-35 fighter fighters over the next 45 years may reach US$73.9 billion.
According to PBO Yves Giroux, the sum reflects the sophisticated aircraft’s life cycle costs, from planning and development to use and disposal. However, that evaluation is subject to a few qualifications.
The PBO has categorically mentioned in the report that if the Air Force does not accept the aircraft on time and does not operate the fighters within the bounds that defense planners anticipate, the aircraft’s lifespan cost will increase by default.
Giroux stated that his office’s estimate roughly aligns with the Department of National Defense’s estimate, which has indicated that it expects the entire cost to be approximately US$70 billion. When Ottawa signed the deal in January 2023, the cost was significantly lower than what had been predicted by the PBO.
To replace its outdated fighter aircraft fleet, Canada signed a C$19 billion (US$14.2 billion) agreement in January this year with US defense giant Lockheed Martin Corp to purchase 88 F-35 fighter jets.
As per the plan agreed to by the two parties, the 88 fighters ordered by Canada are scheduled to arrive in four batches starting in 2026. The number of deliveries will increase annually until it reaches a maximum of 18 in 2029. The last installment is anticipated around 2032.
According to Giroux, the federal government must honor the delivery commitment. “Should there be delays in the delivery of these fighter jets for whatever reason, if there’s a slippage by a year, that would increase costs [by] about US$400 million. Or should there be a two-year slippage, the cost increase should be about US$700 million,” the budget officer said.
The US$53.8-billion operations and sustainment phase will start in 2025-2026, ahead of the Royal Canadian Air Force receiving the first F-35s. It is anticipated that the aircraft will reach the end of its useful life in 2061-2062. The expense of getting rid of the planes is included in Giroux’s calculations.
Another observation made is that the Air Force projects that Canadian F-35 aircraft will fly fewer miles than their American counterparts, which will result in reduced lifetime maintenance and fuel expenses.
Giroux said, ”Our understanding is that what DND plans on doing is flying these jets less on average per year than the US Air Force. And so there’s already savings in that respect, and [the expectation of pilots] using more flight simulators than actual flying hours.”
That section of the evaluation drew the criticism of former senior defense official Alan Williams, who said it’s hard to estimate decades in advance how often the planes will need to be flown. He said he hoped that the Air Force planners are not overly conservative in their projections to justify the expense.
Williams, who oversaw purchasing at the Department of National Defense in the early 2000s, stated that “the usage of the F-35 should be directly related to the role the government sets for them.”
”If you can use lower-cost options, like simulators, you should do so. But if there were insufficient funds to operate the jets to fulfill the mandate, I would tell the government to reduce the mandate or increase the funding.”
For a country considering this purchase for years before it finally signed an agreement, the predictions could be another bummer. However, it may prove to be a bigger problem for Canada’s Liberal Government, which clinched the deal and has already had to contend with angry taxpayers who have been protesting the purchase of a new fighter jet since the very beginning.
Canada’s F-35 Purchase Has Been A Stormy Affair
In Canada, the F-35 program has a contentious past. The Liberal government provided funding for the aircraft’s development in the late 1990s, but it did not commit to buying the stealth fighter.
The Harper administration declared its intention to buy the F-35 during a high-profile press conference in July 2010, during which Conservative Defence Minister Peter Mackay sat in the cockpit of a model aircraft.
However, rising expenses and technical issues plagued the F-35 program. Conservative MP Chris Alexander faced intense criticism in August 2012 when he asserted that the Harper administration had never said it would purchase the F-35. The Conservatives later changed their minds about the purchase due to the stealth jet’s technical issues and rising expenses.
Justin Trudeau swore throughout the 2015 campaign that the Canadian government would never buy an F-35.
Trudeau persisted as prime minister in pointing out that the F-35 was unnecessary for the Canadian military. People in Canada are fully aware that, for a decade, the Conservative Party failed to provide the necessary equipment to the Canadian people and their armed forces, Trudeau stated in June 2016. “They clung to an aircraft (the F-35) that does not work and is far from working.”
Backing its resolve not to buy the F-35, the Liberal administration further stated that Canada could be protected without the F-35’s “stealth first-strike capability.” However, Trudeau went back on his election pledge in January this year, agreeing to buy 88 jets instead of the 65 that the Conservatives had initially planned to acquire.
In the days preceding the signing of the contract, activists around the country protested Canada’s decision to purchase new fighter jets. These demonstrations were mainly held by a civil society organization that goes by the name ‘No Fighter Jets Coalition.’
The ‘No Fighter Jets Coalition,’ a group of 25 Canadian peace and justice organizations, contends that F-35 jets are “killing machines and bad for the environment,” in addition to being unnecessary and expensive.
However, despite the nationwide protests, the Canadian government went ahead with the purchase while emphasizing that it was imperative for national security. But the demonstrators disagree with the government’s strategy.
Activists argue that actual development and steps to diminish the causes of conflict, like increasing food and housing security, are necessary to lessen the possibility of war in the future.
With Justin Trudeau’s ratings at home recording a fall as he seeks to win a historic fourth term as Prime Minister, the cost overruns predicted by the PBO could snowball into yet another controversy at home.
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