According to The National Post, the Canadian government has apparently already made an unofficial decision to buy the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to replace Canada’s CF-188 (Legacy) Hornet fleet en masse. This comes after a campaign promise in late 2015 by then-prime ministerial candidate Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party to not buy the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, as the RCAF had originally planned.
“We will immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft.”
As early as December 2015, after the incoming government assumed power, Canada’s new Minister of Defence, Harjit Sajjan, backtracked on that promise to exclude the F-35A from the aforementioned “open and transparent competition”, which could have potentially seen the Lightning II squaring off against the Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale, and even Saab’s Gripen NG. This was possibly due to the fear of incurring a high-profile lawsuit filed by Lockheed Martin. However, one (unnamed) official says that “They have made up their minds and are working on the right narrative to support it.”. This comes just seven months after the election without any formal competition initiated at all.
Given the current dilapidated state of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s fighter fleet, and its rapidly diminishing capabilities, Canada needs a new fighter jet fast. Canada bought into the Joint Strike Fighter program as a Level 3 partner after Lockheed Martin won the contract to mature its X-35A/B into the F-35A/B/C strike fighters. The RCAF’s Hornets, built in the early 1980s, would be retired around the time that Canada would hypothetically take delivery of the F-35 between 2015-2020.
In 2010, the Conservative Harper government, following on to the Liberal Chretien government which had signed the JSF partnership agreement, announced a buy of 65 F-35As (conventional takeoff variant) to replace all 80 of Canada’s CF-188s for a total of $16 billion USD. A number of Canadian military officials vocally supported the buy, including the former head of the RCAF, Lt-Gen. Yvan Blondin. Having flown both the CF-188 Hornet and the CF-5/CF-116 Freedom Fighter, Blondin said in 2012: “I truly believe that given the mandate that we have now that the F-35 is, from all airplanes that are available, the best airplane out there”. Squabbles on the cost of the buy, and a perceived lack of transparency, culminated with the F-35 being shown the door after a new government was elected in 2015.
A foreign fighter pickup of around 80-100 units could be good news for Boeing, which has been fighting since 2014 to keep its St. Louis Super Hornet and Eagle production lines open. Renewed interest from the US Navy in purchasing further F/A-18E/Fs and the EA-18G Growler electronic warfare derivative have been the Super Hornet line’s saving grace.
Should Canada actually buy the F/A-18E/F as a replacement for the CF-188, Boeing could offer an upgraded Super Hornet built on top of the current Block II standard, the primary feature of which is the Advanced Super Hornet (ASH) package. ASH includes conformal fuel tanks (CFTs), which extend range while diminishing drag and opening up under-wing pylon space for a larger combat loadout. Also included is an under-belly stealth pod for “internal” missile carriage, a new AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, an infra-red search and track (IRST) system, newer fuel efficient engines, and a revamped cockpit, among other things. The learning curve for pilots moving from the Legacy Hornet to the larger Super Hornet would be considerably tolerable, and not much needs to be done in the way of modifying infrastructure to accommodate the new aircraft.
The previous Harper government had, in the recent past, attempted to stave off the retirement of the CF-188 by funding a $400 million CAD program to extend the service lives of the Hornets till 2025, so that more time could be given to determining its ideal replacement. Now, a little under two years later, the Trudeau government announces that the Hornets are on their deathbed and need to be replaced immediately.
It seems as though this buy could be classified as a an interim replacement, echoing an Australian move to buy 24 Super Hornets to replace the F-111 supersonic strike aircraft until the F-35A could be procured in larger numbers. However, with the $30 billion CAD shipbuilding program to replace Canada’s geriatric naval fleet looming on the horizon, it seems as though replacing the Super Hornet would not be a priority for decades, even far after the platform is already outclassed by foreign-built fifth generation fighter aircraft. Currently, Turkey, China, Russia, Sweden, Korea, Japan, and possibly even Germany are exploring the design and production of stealth fighters. Additionally, the US Navy has already begun to consider replacing their own Super Hornets by 2030 with a next-generation fighter.
Once the Super Hornets reach total obsolescence within the next twenty years, Canada will be faced with a similar conundrum as it is right now: a new fighter buy. Instead, however, it’ll most likely be forced to pick up the F-35, albeit newer models with the bugs and glitches worked out. Nevertheless, it’ll be billions more spent on top of the billions currently being spent to replace the CF-188, doubling, if not more, the original long-term figure projections for a fighter replacement.
The Super Hornet could very likely be just the fighter Canada needs right now, given its lower lifetime cost in comparison to the F-35A, which presents a larger financial challenge. If Canada does not expect to function in a first-day-of-war role, going into future conflicts, the Super Hornet is indeed better suited towards Canada’s needs than the F-35. But in less than half the original lifetime of the CF-188, the Super Hornet will be outclassed and outgunned by foreign fighters altogether, once again necessitating a new fighter buy, which could wind up being significantly costlier than if Canada stuck with the CF-188 until 2025 as the Harper government intended before investing in a next-generation platform. Classifying the purchase of the Super Hornet as an interim solution will also allow the Trudeau government to push back an actual fighter competition, and can prevent Lockheed Martin from being able to launch a gargantuan lawsuit (and possibly win) against the Canadian government for an unfair selection process