Controversial F-35 jets make an appearance at B.C. air show

The Liberal Party campaigned on a promise not to buy the planes but has stayed in the purchasing group

Samuel King Jr./U.S. Air Force/AP

Samuel King Jr./U.S. Air Force/AP

ABBOTSFORD, B.C. — The new-age fighter jet once poised to replace Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet, but whose ballooning price tag and controversial selection process threw its purchase into doubt, has made its inaugural visit to Canada.

A pair of F-35 stealth fighters roared into British Columbia on Thursday in preparation for the annual Abbotsford International Airshow.

The next-generation aircraft, whose development has been marred with delays and cost overruns, has been the source of ongoing angst in Ottawa as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government grapples with finding a replacement for the country’s long-outdated fighter jets.

Trudeau told the House of Commons in June that the F-35 “does not work and is far from working,” two months before a surprise announcement last week that the aircraft is ready for combat.

Lt.-Col. George Watkins, a pilot with the U.S. air force’s 34th Fighter Squadron, flew one of two operational planes to B.C. from Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Speaking on the tarmac in front of one of the aircraft, he described flying the F-35 as “awesome.”

“I’m very confident in the combat declaration that we made, combat ready,” Watkins said.

“Being a combat commander in a fighter squadron, I personally wouldn’t go to war with any other jet beside the F-35 right now. The stealth technology and the advanced radar and the threat detection system makes me more capable so I can strike first and it makes it so that my pilots are more survivable in war time.”

The federal Liberal government promised during last year’s election campaign that it would hold an open competition to replace Canada’s aging CF-18 fleet, but it also pledged not to buy the F-35.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper said in 2010 Canada would buy 64 of the stealth fighters, a commitment that was derailed when the Liberals came to power last year.

Lockheed Martin, the U.S.-based defence contractor overseeing the F-35’s development, has since asked the Canadian government for the chance to compete in an open and fair competition to provide the next generation of airplanes to Canada’s military.

Still, the federal government paid more than $30 million earlier this year to remain part of a consortium of nine countries backing the development of the fifth-generation aircraft.

Canada has contributed more than $311 million to the group, which ensures it an eventual discount to buy the jet as well as access in the meantime to lucrative development contracts.

The government said Canadian companies have received US$812 million in contracts since Canada’s first F-35 payment in 1997.

The rival aircraft vying to become Canada’s next fighter jet is Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, which was also scheduled to make an appearance at Abbotsford’s air show.

A published report earlier this year said the Liberals had decided to purchase the Super Hornet as an interim measure to buy time for landing on a long-term fix for the Air Force. That prompted an outcry from the Opposition Conservatives over what they described as a rigged process that allowed Boeing to “jump the queue.”

Canada bought its current fleet of CF-18s in the 1980s. The jets were designed to last 20 years, but the former Conservative government opted to spend $400 million to overhaul the fleet to keep the 77 aircraft in operation until at least 2025.

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