F-35 AND GRIPEN... How we got here and where to now?


With the FFCP decision expected to be awarded in 2022, it finally looks like Canada is in the final stretch to replace its aging CF-188 Hornets.  With the recent ousting of Boeing's Super Hornet from the competition, we are now left with two very different candidates:  The Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II and the Saab JAS 39E Gripen (Griffon).  

What a long, strange trip it's been...

Nearly twelve years ago, when I started Gripen4Canada, the Joint Strike Fighter was a troubled project that seemed to be on the verge of collapsing in on itself.  Despite this, the Canadian government at the time had committed itself to buying 65 F-35As.  Shortly after, it was found that no other alternatives were fairly considered and that "fuzzy" math was used to come up with a $9 billion price tag.  Real costs were said to be much closer to $46 billion over the lifetime of the aircraft.  The fighter purchase was then "reset" (ie: put off).

An "independent" review panel was put in place to make sure everything was on the up-and-up.  Shortly after, one of its members; Retired Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, resigned from the panel stating he was "too busy"...  Only to be almost immediately announced as the new President of Lockheed Martin Canada.   

Canada's Government then proceeded to kick the can down the road until the 2015 Federal Election, when the (then minority) Liberals under Justin Trudeau promised to cancel the F-35 buy altogether and start new.  Much to everyone's surprise, the (then third place) Liberal party won the election and made good on that promise...  Sort of.  

Shortly after entering power, the Liberals made the stunning announcement that Canada was experiencing a "capability gap" in its fighter fleet.  Simply put, Canada had enough usable fighters to meet our NATO and NORAD commitments, just not simultaneously.  It then announced the purchase of 18 new Super Hornets to fill that gap.  

The plan was not without some merit.  The Super Hornet was certainly an upgrade to Canada's aging legacy Hornets while also maintaining some semblance of commonality.  Some, perhaps rightly so, saw this as a way to stack the cards in favor of Boeing for the entirety of of the CF-188 replacement.

They might have gotten away with it...  If Boeing had not done THE THING and kiboshed the whole deal. 

In 2017, the Canadian government formally announced the Future Fighter Capability Project.  Surprisingly, the Trudeau Liberals planned to buy 88 new fighters instead of the previously planned 65.  Five candidates were being considered; the F-35 Lightning II, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, and the Saab Gripen.  

Citing interoperability concerns, Dassault's Rafale was the first to bow out.  This was not seen as much of a surprise given that the Rafale was never flown with the usual NATO favorite AIM-9 Sidewinders and AIM-120 AMRAAMs.  Certifying the Rafale for Canadian use was likely seen as not worth the hassle. 

The Eurofighter Typhoon was the next to exit Canada's FFCP.  While the Typhoon is certainly a capable machine, it has earned a reputation of being rather pricey to procure and operate thanks to its convoluted manufacturing roots.  Splitting the European supply chain with the aircraft fleet by the Atlantic Ocean only complicated matters.  It is likely the Eurofighter consortium could not make the numbers work.  

Surprisingly, Boeing's Super Hornet was the next fighter to be eliminated.  Even with its recent controversies, Boeing was still considered to be a front-runner for the FFCP.  Perhaps recent changes to the "Block III" Super Hornet's upgrades were the last straw...  Or its history with the KC-46...  Or maybe its disappointing Starliner has caused a lack of faith in the corporation altogether.  

Whatever the case, Canada is now left to choose between the F-35 Lightning II and the Saab Gripen E.  In many ways, this unlikely pairing illustrates two ends of the modern fighter spectrum.  

The F-35 exists on the high end.  Manufactured by the largest defense contractor in the world, and operated by the world's largest militaries, the JSF is considered by many to be the de facto replacement for fighters like the F-16 and F/A-18.  It has laid its claim as being the only true "5th Generation" fighter available to NATO-allied nations.  A controversial development cycle combined with high operating costs has led to plenty of second-thoughts regarding the fighter, only to go ahead and procure it anyway.  

Saab's Gripen occupies a much smaller niche.  Being a supersonic fighter not designed by a superpower or some multinational conglomerate, the fact that it exists at all is surprising.  The fact that it has somehow managed to no go head-to-head with the largest weapon program of all time is completely astonishing.  

In most ways, the F-35 is clearly the superior aircraft.  Being "5th Generation", it promises stealth, advanced sensors, and data-link capability heretofore unseen on older aircraft.  Compared to the Gripen specifically, the JSF is more advanced, more powerful, carries more internal fuel, more weapons, and fits seamlessly into the American-dominated NATO force.  

Fortunately for the Gripen, being "less capable" is not a bug.  It is a feature.  

While it lacks a stealth design, the Gripen's latest variant attempts to get the aircraft as close to "5th generation" capability as possible.  Upgraded radar, an IRST, more internal fuel, enhanced avionics and electronic warfare (EW) suite push the 4th generation design as far as it will go...  Without the extra costs and maintenance required of stealth designs.  Saab promises slightly less capability at a substantially reduced operating cost.  

Perhaps it is Canada's unlikely choice between the JSF and Gripen that speaks volumes.  

Everything else being equal, the F-35 would be the most likely choice given the RCAF's clear preference for it.  Recent competitions in Switzerland and Finland have resulted in the F-35 being selected; albeit with some caveats.  

Unfortunately, Canada is in the unenviable position of needing to replace more than just our fighter fleet.  Years of deferred defense procurements have left us needing multiple big-ticket items besides fighters.  This includes the Canadian Surface Combatant, submarines, MRTT, Aurora and Snowbird replacements...  Even new pistols for the army.  All within the next 10 years or so.  Combine this with Canada's usual trepidation when it comes to military spending and it becomes inevitable that some projects will be scaled back if not cut entirely.  Now add the inevitable "belt-tightening" in a (hopefully) post-COVID economy to the mix and realize that difficult decisions will have to be made.  

All of this makes the decision between the F-35 and Gripen a clear choice that will be difficult to predict.  

If Canada chooses the F-35, that indicates we will remain steadfast in "keeping up with the Joneses" by fielding similar military hardware as our allies, albeit without the same commitment to military spending.  Government and military beancounters will be forced to "find the money" to keep the RCAF's crown jewel flying.  Lower profile (yet no less important) projects may find it harder to find funding.  Canada may be forced into giving up certain capabilities (like submarines).  This could be rationalized by stating that our allies could fill the role.  This was the initial plan with Canada's F-35s and aerial refueling.  The Canadian Armed Forces would be less its own separate entity and more of a small part of a larger whole.  

By contrast, choosing the Gripen may indicate that Canada's government has decided to face reality.  In order for Canada's military to stay relevant in the 21st century, we must take a more holistic approach.  Choosing a fighter with lower operating costs could free up money for an Aurora replacement...  Which does not have to be the P-8 Poseidon.  Not only this, but by choosing a fighter that will be built in Canada, we will be emphasizing our own independence.  

It is not an easy choice to make, nor to predict.  

From the military perspective, the F-35 is the clear favorite.  If the CAF was given a blank cheque and told to make the decision, we would already be seeing CF-35s in RCAF livery.  It is easy to see why.  The JSF represents the "latest-and-greatest" in fighter technology.  Integration with allied forces would be a non-issue.  Given how ubiquitous the F-35 will end up, there is no doubts as to future support and upgrade options.  

Politically, things are very different.  The Trudeau government rose to power on the promise to specifically NOT buy the F-35.  Currently, they form a minority government and rely on support from another party (the NDP) to remain in power.  The NDP has made it clear that they would prefer a "made in Canada" solution.  One should not dismiss the political capital that would be gained by announcing that Canada's next fighter will not only be more affordable than initially planned, but will be built here.  

How do we decide?

It will not be the respective fighters' strengths, but how they address their weaknesses that could tip the scales.  

Unfortunately, being built in Canada will not be enough to propel the Gripen to the win.  The last fighter built on Canadian soil, the CF-116 Freedom Fighter, did not quite meet Canada's needs.  Its stigma will likely carry over as an example of how the cheaper, home-built fighter is not alway the most sensible choice.  

Saab's bid will have make the case that the Gripen E is, in fact, much more than a simple point-defense fighter.  It needs to be a true multirole fighter that not only matches the current CF-18's capabilities, but improves on them.  Recent marketing attempts to do this by emphasizing technology like data-links and AESA radar over raw speed and maneuverability.  

Conversely, Lockheed Martin will have to reassure Canadian decision makers that the F-35 is not the "Trillion-dollar Turkey" some have made it out to be.  This will not be an easy task given the JSF's troubled development and long history of cost overruns; the same issues that made Canada cancel its order in the first place.  

The good news is that the JSF program has managed to shake off a lot of its early issues.  It is now considered to be not only operational, but combat proven.  Unit costs have come down dramatically, making it far more affordable to procure.  Unfortunately, high sustainment costs persist as the F-35's bugbear.  

So which fighter will be selected?  

The fact that we have somehow ended up with these two fighters as finalists seem improbable in and of itself.  One entered the competition as a dark horse and was often predicted to be the first one eliminated.  The other was already dropped once by the current government.  

Very few could have predicted this David and Goliath showdown, but here we are.  

Without knowing the exact details of respective bids, nor the specifics of how the FFCP grades and prioritizes each category; there is no way to pick a perspective winner.  Not with what we currently know, anyway.  

Whatever the decision, it will undoubtedly be controversial.  


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