VICTORIA, British Columbia — Canada will see a major shift in defense policy with the election of a new Liberal Party government and its planned withdrawal from the Iraq coalition air campaign and the US-led F-35 program.
Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau promised both during the election campaign leading up to Monday’s vote. Trudeau won a surprise landslide victory, forcing the ruling Conservative Party government into the opposition ranks of the House of Commons.
Trudeau said Tuesday he talked to US President Obama about Canada’s changing role in Iraq and the battle against the Islamic State militant group.
“I committed that we would continue to engage in a responsible way that understands how Canada has a role to play in the fight against ISIL,” Trudeau told journalists in a televised news conference from Ottawa, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group, also known as IS. “But (President Obama) understands the commitments I’ve made around ending the combat mission.”
In October 2014, Canada’s Conservative Party government committed a force of 600 Canadian military personnel, fighter jets, refueling tankers and surveillance aircraft to the air campaign against IS. It also sent 69 special forces to train Kurdish troops in northern Iraq.
In April, the Conservative government expanded Canada’s role in the bombing campaign to IS targets in Syria.
Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper said if he was re-elected, he would approve a long-term commitment to the Iraq and Syrian wars.
Although Trudeau intends to end Canada’s role in the bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, he has promised to boost the number of soldiers available to train Iraqi troops.
Trudeau has not yet provided details on how many trainers he would authorize or where that training would be done. However, he has said that Canada’s training role would be similar to the one it had in Afghanistan.
Trudeau reiterated Tuesday that Canada remains "a strong member of the coalition against ISIL." However, the prime minister-designate has questioned the value of the bombing campaign.
Asked when he would bring aircrews back to Canada, Trudeau said it would be “done in an orderly fashion.”
Canada also would increase humanitarian aid to the region, Trudeau said .
Trudeau said he would name his new cabinet on Nov. 4., including his choices for key positions such as defense and foreign affairs ministers.
Trudeau also has promised to move quickly on replacing Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighter aircraft and to pull out of the F-35 program. He said Canada does not need a stealth fighter for its defense needs and that the F-35 is too expensive.
The Liberal Party released its 88-page election platform Oct. 5, which included some details about how it would proceed with replacing the CF-18s. “The primary mission of our fighter aircraft should remain the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability,” the platform said. “We will make investing in the Royal Canadian Navy a top priority. By purchasing more affordable alternatives to the F-35s, we will be able to invest in strengthening our Navy.”
The Pentagon's press secretary, Peter Cook, said the US looks forward to maintaining a strong relationship with Canada, a NATO ally and NORAD partner. “We look forward to continuing the strong defense relationship we have with Canada going forward,” he said. “It would be inappropriate to me to speculate on how that might change going forward.”
The F-35 Joint Program Office issued a statement saying: "Canada remains a partner in the F-35 program. It is inappropriate to speculate on program impacts as a result of Canada's recent election."
Lockheed Martin spokesman Mark Johnson said the firm has not received any formal notification from the Canadian government that its status has changed concerning the F-35 program.
“They are a valued partner, and we will continue to support them through their decision process to replace their ageing CF-18 fleet,” Johnson said.
Canada is the first country to withdraw from the air coalition against the Islamic State group.
It would also be the first to leave the F-35 program.
Alan Williams, who signed the original memorandum that brought Canada into the F-35 program in 1997, said the planned withdrawal from the fighter jet project would be embarrassing for the US.
But he said that Canada has to base its decisions on its own defense needs, and not only on the security and industrial concerns of its allies.
“It will be up to the government to decide how the roles it wants to see its fighter aircraft used and what would best meet those requirements,” said Williams, who is the former Assistant Deputy Minister for Materiel at Canada’s Department of National Defence.
The other potential contenders to replace Canada’s CF-18s are the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, Boeing’s Super Hornet and Saab’s Gripen.
Williams said holding an open competition for a CF-18 replacement would ensure Canadian aerospace firms have the best chance at obtaining work on such a project.
Trudeau has suggested that the F-35 would not be considered in any competition.
Williams said the new prime minister could not prevent Lockheed Martin from bidding in a completion but the requirements of the acquisition might prevent the aircraft from winning. “If you decide that you don’t need stealth or certain other attributes that are the hallmark of the F-35, then its chances are greatly diminished,” he said.
Thirty-three Canadian firms have active contracts on the F-35 program totaling US$637 million.
Staff writers Lara Seligman and Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.