Each F-16 or F-18 replaced will cost Canadian taxpayers $600 million

In light of a recent statement on November 2 by the Canadian parliamentary budget officer, the estimated $53 billion required for Canada’s procurement of Lockheed Martin F-35A fifth-generation fighters from the United States has raised significant trepidations. The considerable financial impact and potential for substantial cost overruns have elicited noteworthy apprehension. 

British F-35 crashed due to one of the F135's air intake blank
Photo credit: UK MoD

The Canadian Defence Ministry is planning to invest $14.2 billion for the procurement of 88 fighter jets and related equipment, translating to roughly $161 million per aircraft. However, due to the F-35’s well-known high operational expenses for a solitary-engine jet, it is projected that the fleet’s lifetime could incur nearly $39 billion in additional costs to the treasury.  

Procuring an aircraft and its pertinent equipment constitutes merely about a quarter of its total expense. In fact, each aircraft is projected to amass a lifetime cost exceeding $600 million.

‘Failure of the F-35 program’

The report by the budget officer underscored a significant failing of the F-35 program – an aircraft initially devised to mirror the operational costs of the F-16s and F-18s it was set to replace. However, the actual costs of flight and maintenance have turned out to be significantly higher. This has made the replacement of F-16 units throughout the U.S. Air Force prohibitively expensive, compelling the service to contemplate other alternatives.  

The predicted cost of $53 billion has the potential to increase dramatically. This is primarily due to two significant factors: the tangible risk of accidents stemming from the F-35’s software glitches, which have already caused some crashes, and newly surfaced operational issues. These operational challenges have necessitated expensive modifications, further escalating operational costs.

Su-30 has used Khibiny EW during an interception of the Italian F-35
Photo by Todd R. McQueen

Inadequate engine cooling

One prime instance of a design oversight leading to considerably escalated operation expenses can be attributed to the inadequate cooling capability of the fighter’s F135 engine. A scrutiny carried out in June by auditors from the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed an alarming increase of $38 billion in the topline operational expenses for the American fleet alone, emanating chiefly from this flaw. 

As the F-35 starts being deployed at the Block 4 standard in 2024, the supplementary maintenance costs attributed to higher cooling and power needs of the new modification are predicted to escalate. This cost escalation is anticipated to continue until the engine replacement transpires. It is also foreseen that other unforeseen additional operational costs may continue to surface in the future. 

Reduction of flying hours

It is anticipated that the lifetime expenditure of F-35s for the Canadian Air Force will be considerably less than their U.S. counterparts. This marked cost reduction is attributed to the Defence Ministry’s strategy of decreased annual flight hours and increased reliance on simulators for pilot training. 

The Parliamentary Budget Officer conveyed a cautionary note regarding potential cost increases for the F-35s used by the Royal Canadian Air Force. These additional costs could arise if the aircraft are flown beyond the forecasted schedule set by defense planners.

Furthermore, delays in the planes’ delivery would escalate these costs significantly. The officer stated, “A delay of a year in the jets’ arrival could inflate costs by an estimated $400 million. Should the delay stretch to two years, the cost hike could reach around $700 million.” 

Deliveries will take more than a decade

Due to severe production shortfalls, protracted approvals for large-scale manufacturing, and substantial order volumes from NATO-standardised fighter fleet countries, mainly aiming to substitute their F-16s, the delivery of Canada’s F-35s will likely be finished more than a decade after the initial order, projected in 2032. However, based on the recent patterns of American fighter deliveries, it’s plausible that delays could extend well beyond this estimation. 

In March 2022, the Canadian Defence Ministry advanced its acquisition process for F-35As, marking the conclusion of a lengthy selection process. The procured aircraft are set to retire the country’s aged CF-18C/D Hornet fourth-generation fighters, which have been in service since the 1980s.

F-15E Strike Eagle flies more hours per month than the F-35
Photo by Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong

Notably, the F-35A has been the selected choice for three out of the four Western air forces – Australia, Switzerland, and Finland – that currently operate F-18C/Ds. Anticipation is growing that Spain, the fourth country, will also opt for the F-35A.

The unique position of the F-35

The unique position held by the F-35 as the sole NATO-compatible post-fourth-generation fighter currently in production has allowed it to consistently outshine other Western fighter classes in tenders. Its distinctive edge comes from its sophisticated avionics and stealth capabilities.

Despite not having committed to any acquisitions, Canada has been a significant contributor to the F-35 program as an industry partner, injecting $613 million into the initiative between 1997 and 2021.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ottawa maintained a non-committal stance towards any proposed acquisitions throughout the 2010s, with Trudeau even criticizing the fighter jet as “a system that is non-functional and far from becoming operational.” Revelations of the anticipated costs have reignited the ongoing controversy surrounding the fighter jet purchase.

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