After 10 years of hesitation, Canada is preparing to purchase 88 F-35 fighter jets at a cost of nearly $20 billion.
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The device is controversial. It’s supposed to be complicated, not to the point, expensive to maintain. Former Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller even called it “a bunch…” [merde] at a press conference early last year.
However, its cutting-edge technology impresses and its ability to dodge enemy radar is praised. And it’s the choice of many armed forces outside the United States, too. So far, 14 countries have ordered it.
Before Canada places its final order by the end of the year, we bring you the perspective of two seasoned aviators who have diametrically opposed opinions on the F-35.
The former test pilot in the USA for the company Lockheed, the manufacturer of the F-35, Billie Flynn, knows the model well. He has flown his wings many times as a test pilot.
He was previously a fighter pilot in the Canadian Forces. It’s kind of a legend in the aviation world here.
For him there is no doubt: Canada made the best decision in choosing the device as its new combat aircraft, the most sophisticated one that has ever existed, he says.
“When you fly an F-35, you have a sense of omnipotence and invincibility in every task you perform,” he says.
In his view, the F-35 offers unprecedented combat capabilities due to the technology on board.
“It’s a real flight computer,” he says.
Not only is it designed to evade enemy radar thanks to the construction of its wings and fuselage, but it is also equipped with sophisticated means of detection linked between them.
“With sensor fusion, the pilot and aircraft see everything in the air, over sea and on the ground within a 360-degree radius of the aircraft, in some cases hundreds of miles away,” says Flynn.
The F-35 comes with a pilot’s helmet, also unusual, he recalls. The $500,000 helmet features artificial vision, allowing the pilot to literally see through the plane when looking out.
This plane will allow, Mr. Flynn points out, to face the last generation planes made by the Russians and Chinese.
“When Canada must deploy our armed forces men and women into high-risk environments, it is imperative to ensure our fighters are as effective as possible and achieve victories every time.”
Mr. Flynn acknowledges that the development of the F-35 is long and tedious. The aircraft has been flying since 2006 and is not yet considered finished.
But in his opinion, this long journey is due to the nature of the program. After all, it is “the most complex device that has ever been developed,” he says.
Critics in the United States and elsewhere are commensurate with the size of the program, whose final bill is estimated at $1.5 trillion, meaning they are strong, concedes Mr. Flynn.
According to him, Canada’s 10-year delay in purchasing the F-35 has its perks. By the time the first examples are delivered to the Canadian Armed Forces, the aircraft will have benefited from the long break-in period enjoyed by the Americans and other countries that have already purchased them.
Canada is on the verge of buying a completely undeveloped fighter jet, says French military analyst Xavier Tytelman.
“Maybe in 10 years, but today we don’t know what this plane is really worth,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Tytelman, who served in France’s military aviation, is known for his scathing analyzes of the Russian army’s shortcomings in the current Ukraine conflict.
He recalls that the F-35’s bug list is long at the moment.
Here are the main ones, according to him
- Maintenance costs for the F-35 are still high, at over $30,000 per flight hour, which is six times higher than an aircraft like the Gripen, which was in the running to replace our aging CF-18s. The costs are expected to drop at some point, but by how much is not known.
- Excursion availability rate is always low due to the time spent on maintenance. The rate is currently 50%. He would need to get at least 60% for the level to be satisfactory, notes Mr. Tytelman.
- The advanced F-35 helmet had some misfires. An ill-fitting helmet on a pilot’s head was partly responsible for the crash of an F-35 at a base in Florida in May 2020.
- The plane’s all-touch screens are difficult for pilots to use. With no physical buttons, the pilot must necessarily look at the screen when they want to press a command, distracting their attention and causing them to make mistakes.
The plane’s immense complexity means, says Mr. Tytelman, that it is still not fully operational 15 years after its first test flight. Therefore, the 1358 F-35s currently flying are not final versions of the aircraft. Therefore, it is impossible to say if the F-35s that Canada will receive by the end of the decade will be ready.
And even the US military seems to have doubts, Mr. Tytelman continues: “Instead of speeding up production of the F-35 in the United States for the American armed forces, it is slowing down their production. »
In March, the US Department of Defense announced without explanation that it would cut next year’s planned F-35 orders by more than a third, from 94 to 61 aircraft.
Mr. Tytelman also recalls that an internal Pentagon report released in early 2022 identified 849 uncorrected design flaws on the F-35, including six Category 1 flaws, meaning those that could result in death or serious injury.
Mr. Tytelman tries to explain why the F-35 continues to be sold successfully outside the United States, as it did last year with Finland and Switzerland and this year with Germany.
He sees it as the result of American political influence.
He cites the case of Switzerland. The French Rafale fighter had reportedly been practically chosen by the country as its new fighter “until [le président] Joe Biden, says Mr. Tytelman, pays a visit to Switzerland and suddenly the F-35 becomes the front-runner. »
In his eyes, it is difficult to predict the future of the F-35. Will we be able to correct his mistakes? Nobody really knows, he says. “Today, the F-35 is not a good plane, and that’s a certainty,” concludes Mr. Tytelman.
This is the base version, the most ordered and by far (74% of all F-35 orders). It is also the one that Canada should receive. This is an aircraft operated from land bases.
Designed for aircraft carriers, this aircraft has reinforced landing gear and longer wings.
With a vertical and short takeoff, this limited-production version is used by the American Marine Corps, British and Italian naval forces.
Canada has twice attempted to get F-35s.
Linked to the American program from the start, Canada began the adoption process in 2012. At that time, Canadian fighter jets, the CF-18, were already beginning to age.
When they came to power in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals canceled everything, claiming the F-35 was too expensive. In 2019 they resumed the replacement program for the increasingly obsolete CF-18s. Several aircraft manufacturers are showing interest, including Lockheed with the F-35.
It came full circle when Ottawa announced in March 2022 that it had chosen the F-35 for the second time. If the contract is signed smoothly, the first units could be delivered as early as 2025.