Add Canada to The Ever-Expanding F-35 Operator Map

Seven years ago, as he was about to enter office, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said that Canada would not be buying F-35s. Yesterday, Canada announced formal plans to buy 88 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters for $14 billion (CA $19 billion), a long-expected decision, Trudeau’s hollow rhetoric notwithstanding.

The formal announcement means Canada will become the 10th nation to operate F-35s from its home territory, adding two more bases – Cold Lake, Alberta and Bagotville in Quebec – to the 27 bases F-35s currently operate from worldwide. The first F-35A deliveries will begin in 2026 when a quartet of Lighting IIs will be in Canadian hands. Another six aircraft will be delivered in 2027 and 2028 each with the balance of the 88-fighter buy reaching the Canadian Air Force by around 2032.

By that time, the RCAF will have retired all of the CF-18 Hornets that the F-35s are replacing. Canadian Defence Minister, Anita Anand, told the media that in addition to procuring ex-Australian F-18s to keep its fleet active, Canada plans to upgrade its CF-18s as part of a Hornet service-life extension project, enabling them to remain mission capable until the end of 2032.

The announcement follows confirmation last March that Canada would select the Joint Strike Fighter over competing bids from Saab (Gripen) and BoeingBA
(F/A-18 Super Hornet) which played out in a years’ long process apparently given a final kick by Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Interestingly, Anand commented that Canada has confidence in Lockheed’s ability to deliver the fighters on time, noting that she is not concerned over supply chain issues that could delay production. She did not touch on the recent halt in F-35 deliveries to the U.S. military following last month’s F-35B landing accident in Texas.

I’ve noted the pressure on Lockheed Martin to maintain sufficient production pace to meet its commitments to new F-35 customers including Germany in the last several months. The timelines for competing deliveries to Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Poland and others are roughly the same, suggesting that any further production pauses like the one the F-35 is now under could jeopardize the fleet integration and legacy fighter retirement plans of several militaries.

The quickly changing strategic and tactical realities on the ground in Europe and across the Indo-Pacific have created an enviable but stressful uptick in orders for Lockheed. The new geostrategic picture Anand said, convinced Canada to pull the trigger on its order along with the fact that the F-35 has in her words, “matured”.

“We see now that many of our allies … are using the F-35,” the defence minister told reporters yesterday. “I am focused on ensuring that we deliver for the Canadian Armed Forces and for our country, as well as our multilateral obligations. And with this aircraft, which as I said has matured, we are doing just that.”

Bridget Lauderdale, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager of the F-35 program said, “We are honored the Government of Canada has selected the F-35, and we look forward to continuing our partnership with the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian defence industry to deliver and sustain the aircraft.”

In a press release, Lockheed noted the importance of the F-35 acquisition for interoperability with NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command), adding a domestic air and missile defense angle to Canada’s buy. Anand also relayed news that Canada is investing infrastructure upgrades nationwide to better support NORAD operations.

The presence of another batch of F-35s in the North American far-north – not far removed from Alaska – is another aspect of the buy which will get further attention from U.S. adversaries as well as allies. The RCAF is expected to operate its F-35s in the Arctic as well where international strategic competition is more evident than ever. Anand specifically mentioned cold weather operations and the F-35’s suitability therein as additional logic in its selection.

As for any F-35 buyer, accompanying investment in F-35-specific infrastructure will be necessary and Anand confirmed that Canada will construct new operational, maintenance and training facilities (including simulator and hangar facilities) at Bagotville and Cold Lake.

As a long-time F-35 partner nation, Canada has already drawn economic and employment benefits from its participation in the program to the tune of approximately $3 billion. According to Anand, the 88-fighter procurement could add another $318 million (CA$425 million) to the local economy each year, as well as create nearly 3,300 jobs annually over 25 years.

It also adds yet another northern hemisphere operator to the expanding map of F-35 nations and another customer to the likely two-plus decade production runway for Lockheed’s 5th generation fighter.