The Canadian military does not have the ability to conduct aerial refuelling of the F-35 fighter jet it wants to purchase and is now looking at ways to get around the problem, the Ottawa Citizen has learned.
Options range from paying for modifications to the stealth jets to purchasing a new fleet of tanker aircraft that can gas up the high-tech fighters in mid-air. That option could cost several hundred million dollars, depending on how many new tankers are needed, according to sources.
In addition, because the F-35 would not be able to safely land on runways in Canada's North as those are too short for the fighter, the Defence Department is also looking at having manufacturer Lockheed Martin install a "drag" chute on the plane.
That parachute would deploy when the aircraft lands, slowing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter down. But some pilots have said that high winds affecting such runways could make using a drag chute tricky or even dangerous.
The Defence Department listed air-to-air refuelling as a mandatory capability for any new fighter aircraft Canada purchases, prompting some aerospace industry executives to privately question why this critical feature was ignored for the F-35 purchase. The refuelling is needed if the jets are going to cover long distances.Those look like substantial red flags on the suitability of this purchase for Canada.
The report does suggest that the refuelling system being put into the F-35B (the one the U.S. navy is getting, the vertical take-off & landing model) might be compatible with Canadian aerial fuel tankers but that option would require modifications to the version of the F-35s the Harper government has proposed we buy. There's also the ongoing possibility that the F-35B might be cancelled given its technical challenges and cost overruns. Whether its refuelling system would still be made, just for Canadian jets, would be a question. All the what ifs, what ifs, how they do seem to be piling up on the largest military procurement in Canadian history.
What is there to say at this point except that a competitive bid process would assess such issues and a decision could be made that factors in such Canadian specific conditions. Seems like the Harper government may have placed a little too much emphasis on things like interoperability with the American forces and not enough emphasis on compatibility with Canadian facilities and the Canadian fleet.