After years of uncertainty, Canada is pressing the pause button on buying the Lockheed Martin F-35. The government isn't prepared to make the plunge on the costly new jets yet, but it isn't backing out from its previous commitments either.
At a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday afternoon, Canada's Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that the government would be restarting competition to build Canada's next generation of fighter jet, working to extend the life of Canada's existing fleet of 35-year-old CF-18 Hornet jets, and moving forward to acquire 18 brand new F/A-18 Super Hornets from Boeing for an "an interim period of time."
The announcement is yet another twist in a decade-long struggle by the Canadian government to figure out what fighter jet it wants to fly and how much its willing to spend. And it comes after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to ban the F-35 from consideration during his campaign to become prime minister in 2015.
Those 18 jets are the "minimum number" Canada needs to maintain its international obligations, according to the government. It is unclear if Canada will be buying or leasing the planes. Either way, the cost remains a mystery that the government declined to shed light on during Tuesday's press conference.
Though it remains an open question as to whether Canada will ultimately purchase Lockheed Martin's new and costly F-35s, the government said it will continue to pay its share in the Joint Strike Fighter program, along with Britain, the U.S. and other countries.
"Canada will remain a part of the [F-35] joint strike fighter acquisition program with the United States," said Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan. The program allows domestic industry to bid on contracts to build and maintain the jets and gives Canada a discount on buying them, although membership itself is not cheap — roughly ranging between $20 and $50 million per year.
Even still, it will take another five years for Ottawa to make a final decision on what jets it will buy to round out its full fleet of aircraft. Canada has roughly 80 CF-18s at its disposal, and originally intended to buy 65 of the F-35 Lightning II jets.
Details remained scant during the press conference, despite ministers insisting that the process will be "open and transparent." The ministers of defense, public works, and science and development all faced the press for questions, but would not say how long it would take to receive the new F/A-18s.
The government had hinted at this solution in recent weeks. The announcement amounts essentially to a walk-back after months of uncertainty and a previous promise to kibosh the increasingly costly F-35 procurement plan.
As of Tuesday, the F-35 will remain in consideration.
"We will be awarding a contract to the bidder best expected to meet Canada's needs," said Public Works Minister Judy Foote, who manages the procurement. "We are not stacking the deck in favor of Boeing, anymore than we are for Lockheed Martin."
She noted that the competition would, even after the recent build up, take another five years, in part because the government didn't want "cut corners" in its decision-making.
Inside the Canadian military, there was debate about which jets to buy. The Canadian Air Force lobbied for the F-35s, while others — including some in NORAD, which manages continental defense — wanted the F/A-18s.
Trudeau's government ultimately was preoccupied by a "capability gap," that could render the air force unable to conduct foreign missions while still maintaining regional air defense.
The fighter jet procurement process has already proved a headache for two successive governments. Previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper inked the original F-35 contract vowing that it would link up Canadian industry for billions in prospective contracts for development, maintenance, and repair for the planes. But as costs piled up, issues with the jets multiplied, defense budgets constricted, and delays compounded, Ottawa began pursuing alternatives.