VICTORIA, British Columbia — Whether Canada withdraws from the F-35 program will be decided next week (cq. election is Oct. 19) as Canadians select a new political party to form the country’s next government.
Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau says if elected on Oct. 19, his government would remove Canada from the F-35 program and select a less costly aircraft to replace the Royal Canadian Air Force's CF-18 fighter jets. The savings from such a move would be redirected into naval shipbuilding, according to Trudeau.
The Conservative Party, led by Stephen Harper, has been in power for nine years and would continue the country's partner status in the F-35 program, although it has not yet committed to buying the aircraft.
The Liberals are in a hotly contested two-way race with the Conservatives, with opinion polls showing the election too close to call.
The Liberals released an 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 noted. "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."
But Harper warns that Trudeau's plan would seriously damage Canada's aerospace industry.
"The Liberal Party is living in a dream world if they think we could pull out of the development project of the F-35 and not lose business," Harper told journalists Sept. 21.
Trudeau has countered that Canadian aerospace firms would receive equal or more work on a new fighter jet project that would invite bids from a variety of firms.
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.
Thirty-three Canadian firms have active contracts on the F-35 program totaling US $637 million.
Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for acquisition, raised questions about Harper's claims when he told reporters Sept. 22 that Canadian firms involved in the F-35 program would likely continue to supply components.
"I believe those suppliers are part of the team, I don't see any reason why they would not continue to be part of the team whether Canada [buys jets] or not," Kendall said during a ceremony to celebrate the roll out of Norway's first F-35.
"We make our decisions on participation based on best value, and if Canadian firms are still best value, then they will be part of the program."
Alan Williams, who signed the original memorandum that brought Canada into the F-35 program in 1997, also questioned Harper's claim.
"Those Canadian companies were selected because they provided the best product at the best value," said Williams, who is the former assistant deputy minister for materiel at Canada's Department of National Defence. "They weren't selected because they were Canadian."
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.
Lockheed Martin has not commented on Trudeau’s plan. But in the past, company representatives have warned that if Canada doesn't buy the F-35, it might not continue using Canadian firms on the project. in the future.
On Sept. 25, Canadian firms involved in the F-35 program released a joint statement emphasizing the program had already created long-term high technology jobs.
The firms noted that the F-35 program could create CAN $11 billion (US $8 billion) in work for Canadian companies as well as future opportunities to be involved in supporting the aircraft.
"If Canada does not buy the F-35, these opportunities and future technological advancements, will be in jeopardy of being lost to other countries," said the statement from the Canadian JSF Industry Group. "Current and future jobs will be lost to countries that buy the F-35."
Although Harper supports Canada's continued involvement in the F-35 program, he stopped short of saying the country would purchase the fighter jet.
Harper had previously committed his government to buying 65 F-35s.
But in December 2012, the Conservative government, under fire over questions about the increasing cost of the F-35 program and how the procurement process had been handled, announced it would put the acquisition on hold. The procurement process has yet to restart.
"No decision has been made on the CF-18 replacement at this point," said Conservative Party spokesman Stephen Lecce.
Harper dismissed Trudeau's plan to provide further funding for Canadian naval programs, adding that his government has launched the largest shipbuilding program in the country's peacetime history. But most of the projects, announced in 2006 and 2007, have been delayed and no new ships have been built.
In the meantime, the Royal Canadian Navy has taken out of service its only two supply and refueling ships as well as two of its three remaining destroyers. The ships were decommissioned because of their age as well as mechanical issues.
Trudeau said his government's increase in funding to shipbuilding would speed up the construction process. "We are going to build the ships and prevent the kind of delays on hiring and training and investment in infrastructure in order to deliver those ships in a timely way and on budget," Trudeau explained to journalists.
The New Democratic Party, which at one point was in a three-way tie with the Liberals and Conservatives, said if elected it would hold a competition for the CF-18 fighter replacement.