Canada will rely on either private companies or its allies for midair refueling if it decides to purchase F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to replace its CF-18 fighter aircraft.
But critics and analysts say the decision raises key issues about Canadian sovereignty and military capabilities.
Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) will not comment on the plan, but confirmation of the decision is contained in a brief passage in a government-ordered audit of Canada’s proposed F-35 buy. The 30-page audit by KMPG noted the cost of modifying the F-35s so they can be refueled in midair by Canadian aircraft is not included in the overall price tag of the fighter program because DND will not proceed with that option.
“With respect to air-to-air refueling requirements, DND will rely on NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command], coalition partners, or commercial refueling assets to meet operational requirements,” stated the audit, “Next Generation Fighter Capability,” released Dec. 2.
The Royal Canadian Air Force hopes to purchase the F-35A, which uses a boom refueling system. The service’s existing CC-150 Polaris tankers use only the probe and drogue system, which is used by the F35-B and C.
Alan Williams, DND’s former head of procurement who approved Canada’s participation in the F-35 program, said the department’s plan makes no sense.
“Are we going to spend a large amount of money on new fighters and then rely on allies to refuel aircraft over Canadian territory?” he asked. “Is Canada no longer a sovereign country?”
Defense analyst Martin Shadwick described the decision as a step backward for the Air Force. Canada went without strategic air-to-air refueling for a decade when it retired its older fleet of tankers in 1997, he noted. The Canadian Forces has a fleet of Hercules aircraft that can provide short-range tactical refueling to CF-18 fighters, but they are aging, Shadwick said.
Air Force commanders deemed the longer-range strategic air-to-air refueling capability critical, and 126 million Canadian dollars ($127.7 million) was spent modifying two Polaris aircraft for that role. Those aircraft became fully operational about three years ago but because of the decision not to modify the Canadian F-35s, the planes won’t be able to refuel those aircraft.
Shadwick said Canada’s ability to contribute to international missions could be limited.
NORAD officials did not comment about whether U.S. tankers would be available for Canadian needs. A spokesman for the Joint Strike Fighter Office in the U.S. referred questions to Canadian military officials. Canadian military officials did not provide comment.
Canada committed in 2010 to purchasing 65 F-35s, but in December, the government, under fire over questions about the increasing cost of the jets, announced it would examine other aircraft. The F-35 is still considered the odds-on favorite to replace the CF-18s, according to analysts and military officers.
Shadwick, Williams and opposition members of Parliament, such as Liberal Party defense critic John McKay, said the move appears to be tied to government efforts to keep F-35 costs low.
Lockheed Martin officials confirmed in 2010 that the Canadian military asked the company to look at installing into Canadian F-35s a refueling system capable of accepting a probe and drogue.