By: David Pugliese, The Ottawa Citizen
Last weekend the unicorn finally came to Canada.
Sitting on the tarmac at the Abbotsford Air Show, the F-35 stealth fighter made its first appearance in this country. Recently declared combat-ready by the U.S. Air Force — though critics point out much more work needs to be done on the jet — officials with its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, were jokingly referring to it by the name of the mythical beast, because it’s been talked about here so much and seen not at all.
|An F-35A fighter aircraft during a flypast at the Abbotsford International Airshow on Aug. 11. “It’s hard to find bad news” about the plane, said pilot Lt.-Col. Curtis Pitts. “It’s all good news.” Both Lockheed and Boeing are promoting their longtime presence in Canada as part of their pitch. DARRYL DYCK / THE CANADIAN PRESS|
And the two main contenders in that battle — Boeing with its Super Hornet and Lockheed with the F-35 — came face-to-face in Abbotsford.
“There’s no better vehicle to educate the public than to allow them to see the actual aircraft,” said Jack Crisler, one of Lockheed Martin’s top F-35 officials. “It’s here. It’s real.”
The Liberal government is expected to decide within months how it wants to proceed on replacing Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 fighters.
Justin Trudeau came to power last fall pledging that a Liberal government wouldn’t buy the F-35, an aircraft he said was too expensive and unnecessary given Canada’s needs.
That should have been the kiss of death for Lockheed Martin. But Crisler said he’s feeling good these days about how Canada is moving ahead on the fighter jet file. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has talked about holding a fair and open competition. Lockheed Martin, along with other aircraft firms, recently submitted information to the government about their planes, and met Monday with federal officials.
“It looks like we’re being included, so we look forward to competing on that basis,” Crisler said.
“I’m certainly more optimistic than I was in December 2015.”
The controversial stealth fighter became a political nightmare for the Harper government after it pledged to buy 65 of the planes, which were plagued by technology problems and complaints from U.S. lawmakers about their cost.
Auditor General Michael Ferguson found that Canadian defence officials withheld key information from parliament about the proposed purchase, underestimated the costs of the jets and didn’t follow proper procurement rules.
In June, Lockheed Martin almost saw its hopes of selling planes to Canada disappear completely. The Liberal government was close to moving on an interim purchase of Super Hornets and Trudeau claimed the F-35 “does not work and is far from working.”
That prompted Lockheed Martin to warn that Canadian companies who had contracts on the F-35 would suffer. Plans for a Super Hornet interim deal seemed to disappear.
As for Trudeau’s F-35 comment, Crisler has a diplomatic response: “The evidence is not consistent with a statement like that. If you’re not living it day-to-day, you might not see that.” At the Boeing tent at the Abbotsford air show, officials smiled while pointing out the F-35 wasn’t going to be showcased in a flight demonstration that weekend. In contrast, their Super Hornets roared back and forth in front of the crowds on both days of the show.
“This is a remarkable event where we can show what our aircraft are capable of,” said top Boeing official Roberto Valla.
A Boeing representative providing commentary for the demonstrations introduced the Super Hornet as a “fifth generation stealth fighter” — a dig at Lockheed, which also bills the F-35 as such.
Boeing officials were happy to outline their sales pitch: their aircraft is combat proven, less expensive than the F-35 and will be operating with the U.S. military until at least 2040.
During a demonstration in which a Postmedia reporter flew in one of the planes, Boeing pilot Ty Frautschi claimed the Super Hornet’s capabilities are suited to both combat and Arctic patrols; its two engines provide added safety for northern flights. The jet is designed to take the pounding from short landings on aircraft carriers, he said, which would also help it handle the short runways at the Canadian military’s forward operating locations in the Arctic.
Both Lockheed and Boeing are promoting their longtime presence in Canada as part of their pitch. By September, Crisler said, Canadian firms will have been awarded US$1 billion worth of work on the F-35.
For its part, in conjunction with the air show, Boeing announced the opening of a new software lab in Vancouver, including 50 new jobs.
Crowds gathered to gawk and take photos of the planes, though the two F-35s didn’t fly. The U.S. Air Force pilots that flew them up from Utah were under strict rules not to discuss the Canadian situation.
Instead, they chatted about the aircraft’s capabilities. F-35 pilot Lt.-Col. Curtis Pitts highlighted the plane’s powerful radar and sensors, and the stealth technology that provides it with increased survivability. If necessary, Pitts said, he’d be ready to go to war in the F-35 today. “It’s hard to find bad news” about the plane, said Pitts. “It’s all good news.”
In the end, though, the Canadian Forces will have bad news for one of its suitors.