The CF-188 Hornet has served the Canadian Forces for more than three decades as its primary (and only) frontline air defense fighter. As you can imagine, it’s getting fairly old and edges closer to the end of its feasible lifespan with each passing day. Thus, the Royal Canadian Air Force has been searching for a new fighter aircraft to take over the Hornet’s current air defense and aerial support roles. Note that the CF-188 was only supposed to serve until 2003. Eleven years after that date, Canada’s still shopping for its next fighter.
The Canadian government originally thought that they would find a suitable replacement for the Hornet in the American Joint Strike Fighter program (JSF for short), whose aim was to develop three unique aircraft from one common platform for the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1997, the Canadian government thus invested in the opening stages of the JSF program, the result of which was the Lockheed Martin X-35. With Lockheed Martin securing the JSF contract, Canada decided on further investing and later purchasing the variant destined for the USAF, the F-35A Lightning II, which would come with an internal cannon, next-generation avionics and high-tech weapons systems. Years later, as the F-35A/B/Cs all near Initial Operating Capability for their respective branches, numerous complaints have surfaced on all three variants, a number of which really do have merit (while there are others that come as a result of distorted and overly-sensationalized journalism). These complaints caused the Canadian government to stumble in its approach to acquiring the F-35 as its replacement for the Hornet. Now with the Canadian Department of National Defense promising the US government to buy a set of F-35s within the next five years, cries rallying against supplanting the CF-188 with the F-35 made their way back into the public light.
“It’s too costly!”
“It doesn’t function as advertised!”
“Even the Wright Brothers with a revolver could shoot it down!”
“It malfunctions constantly!”
Similar complaints to the above keep showing up in my various newsfeeds. Likewise making an appearance was the U.S. Naval Institute’s sharing of the recently-released 2014 Next Generation Fighter Capability Annual Update, centered around replacing the Hornet with something more suitable. As I was reading through it, a thought came to mind: what if the DND brought the Eagle to Canada?
I’m not talking about the regular F-15C/D, which is undoubtedly one of the greatest fighter aircraft to have ever been built (in my humble opinion). I’m referring to an upgraded version of this venerable jet, the Silent Eagle, first introduced in 2009 by Boeing. Rather than spending exorbitant sums of money on a clean-sheet all-stealth design which wouldn’t be able to be exported (due to US law) nor would be able to compete with the F-35 for sales, Boeing instead took their (and by their, I mean McDonnell Douglas’s) most successful fighter, the F-15 Eagle, and adapt it to the changing times.
The Silent Eagle uses various methods learned from the X-32 (Boeing’s unsuccessful entry for the JSF program), and the relatively-recent F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to reduce its radar cross-section (RCS), limiting what opposing ground-based and aerial radars might display on their screens if they manage to pick up and track the SE. Like the F-35, it carries its weapons internally, further reducing RCS. However, the Silent Eagle’s stealth is limited in comparison to the F-35 and F-22; both of which are built completely around the concept of functioning as stealth fighter aircraft. The F-15SE is rather an adaptation of the existing and already-capable F-15, designed to keep it a relevant platform going into the future for at least the next fifteen to twenty years or so. It also comes with an AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, and a BAE Systems-designed onboard electronic warfare suite, freeing up space on external hardpoints for more weaponry, should the need arise. It also comes with a glass touchscreen cockpit (similar to the F-35’s), increased fuel efficiency and a unit cost maxing out at approximately $100 million USD, including support and parts. All in all, given the current abilities of the F-15C/D as an extremely potent multirole fighter, and the F-15E as a highly-capable strike fighter, all with glistening and unrivaled combat records, added to the modifications Boeing proposes, you have a seriously awesome and highly-worthy jet in the F-15SE.
So far, the SE hasn’t exactly had a stellar showing on any of its export bids. The Israeli Air Force, though initially expressing interest in the aircraft, decided to pick up the F-35A Lightning II. The same went for the Japanese Air Self Defense Force, and the Republic of Korea Air Force (South Korea). When offered the Silent Eagle, the Saudis stated that they liked the aircraft but still wanted to go with the less-advanced and cheaper F-15SA. This doesn’t necessarily reflect negatively on the F-15SE. It’s not a fifth-generation fighter, and it most definitely isn’t as stealthy as the F-35. That doesn’t mean that it’s wholly irrelevant and useless. For Canada’s purposes, the SE is near-perfect.
Canada, the second-largest country in the world, has a considerable land mass and coastal lines that need to be defended against possible threats, especially those emanating from its western neighbors across the Pacific Ocean. The range of the F-15SE would make it a highly suitable aircraft for the job. Not to mention, inhospitable climates and the remoteness of the Canadian north make recovering downed aircrew difficult, in the event of equipment malfunctions… especially engine failure. The highly-reliable twin Pratt & Whitney F-100-229s that come with the SE reduce the likelihood of losing aircraft in this manner, and further still, allow for the possibility to recover the aircraft itself with just one engine functioning. Also, I figured I’d throw in a reminder as to the amazing airworthiness of the Eagle… remember that time it flew with just one wing after a midair collision? Proven ruggedness, wouldn’t you say? Again, the F-15’s also an unmatched air-to-air fighter, able to fly a variety of other missions. What more could the RCAF ask for?
Well, there are downsides to the Silent Eagle. For one, it’s not a complete fifth-generation fighter. This means that in time, the SE will be unable to fly against more modern fifth-gen jets and win consistently, should situations ever escalate to that point. As the world moves towards entering the fifth generation of fighter aviation, it leaves 4th and 4.5th generation fighters behind as relics from the past, due to their reaching the end of their life cycles and being disadvantaged against modern jets. Therefore, buying the F-15SE could prove to be a poor investment for Canada, which should realistically consider paying lesser in the long run by buying the F-35, rather than buying the F-15SE, retiring it, and then eventually buying into the F-35 to replace it. Speaking of buying, the costs involved with the F-15SE are pretty large and burdensome when you consider the Canadian defense budget, which is generally not very expansive in size. The unit cost of the F-15SE, as well as the hourly flight costs could prove to be too much for the Canadian government to handle. Indeed, back when it first purchased the F/A-18 Hornet from McDonnell Douglas, the Department of National Defense felt that the F-15 would be too costly to operate in the long run, and decided on the cheaper Hornet instead.
For all the negativity surrounding the program, the F-35 is still a very capable aircraft that’ll prove itself over time. It’s also a plane that the RCAF has envisioned for the past 10 years or so as its next fighter, with little to no consideration of other aircraft as viable options. Therefore, it looks unlikely at the moment that the Canadian government would entertain dumping the F-35A in favor of the F-15SE. In the long run, it’s probably for the best. But it’s nice to theorize about what might be or what could have been on occasion, isn’t it?