The Royal Canadian Air Force might have to wait a little longer to receive a replacement for its rapidly-aging CF-188 Legacy Hornets, thanks to the Justin Trudeau-led government dropping its apparent plan to buy the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as its successor. In early June, an unnamed source revealed to the National Post that the Canadian government had already selected the Super Hornet in lieu of the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, albeit without initiating the fighter competition it had previously promised. This source, a figure within the government, claimed that all that remained to be done was the drafting of a narrative that would support this decision, so as to protect over $750 million worth of contracts offered to Canada due to the country’s earlier support of the F-35 program.
In 2015, during the run-up to the October elections in Canada, Justin Trudeau’s campaign platform included a definite promise to not buy the F-35 Lightning II under any circumstance:
We will immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft. The primary mission of our fighter aircraft should remain the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability.We will reduce the procurement budget for replacing the CF-18s, and will instead purchase one of the many, lower-priced options that better match Canada’s defence needs.
Following the election of Trudeau and the Liberal Party to power, however, the “open and transparent competition” never actually materialized. The party’s stance on the F-35 was softened significantly as well. Defense minister Harjit Sajjan, in a conference call last December remarked:
“My focus is about replacing our CF-18, and we’re going through a proper process to make sure we have the right requirements so we have the right capability, not only for our country but for how we relate to NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and our commitments to NATO,” says Sajjan, who assumed the role in November following a change of government … We’re going to do this in a responsible manner.”
When news broke in June of this year that the Canadian government was focusing its attention on the Super Hornet, it was thought that the purchase of those F/A-18E/Fs would be classified as an “interim buy”, meaning that it would only temporarily replace the Legacy Hornet until a long-term solution could be discerned and bought, similar to what the Royal Australian Air Force had done with its own Hornet fleet. Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighed in on the affair:
Now, instead of buying the Super Hornet, the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) is moving to enact their previous plan by opening up that “transparent” competition between defense contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Dassault, Saab, and Airbus, in order to determine the best aircraft suited towards Canada’s needs going forward. This comes after Lockheed Martin warned the Canadian government that its failure to maintain its previous commitment to the F-35 could potentially result in a retraction of all contracts, and possibly even a very costly lawsuit against the government. It’s extremely possible that, in a competition with other manufacturers, the F-35 will actually come out on top, as it has in Korea, Denmark, and Japan, against fighter offerings from Boeing and Saab, which currently offer the most cost-effective 4.5 generation fighter aircraft on the market today outside of Russia.
Sajjan noted that the RCAF, at the moment, suffers a large capability gap which hinders its ability to appropriately maintain its commitments to NATO and to NORAD, the joint American/Canadian air-defense alliance. When asked for a time frame on the matter of procuring new fighters to replace the CF-188, he stated: “It all depends on a lot of the information that we do collect, but it is going to be months, not years, definitely, because of the urgency for this”, which could potentially still point to the F-35 being unable to compete, as the A-model of the F-35, the variant Canada previously decided to procure, will not be fully operational and in mass production until next year. Boeing’s Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale, and the Saab Gripen, are all in production at this point, and are within Canada’s presumed price range. The Eurofighter Typhoon could be precluded by virtue of its cost alone.
The requirements for the new fighter will also be rewritten, as the current government believes that the initial operational requirements were drafted to favor only the F-35 above other possible replacement fighters. Given that Canadian fighters haven’t flown air-to-air operations since the Persian Gulf War (i.e. 1990), and that the vast majority of Canadian military operations over the past twenty years feature air-to-ground operations, the new requirements would necessarily favor an aircraft that is optimized towards flying such missions, but also capable of flying air-to-air, as the RCAF cannot afford a multi-fighter fleet like the US Air Force, or the Royal Air Force. However, the F-35 still fits the bill, as it is designed as a strike fighter from the ground up.
The next few months will be pivotal in determining a proper course of action for the RCAF, though a replacement for the CF-188 could be shelved for the time being, given the costly overhaul the Royal Canadian Navy will be undertaking over the course of the next few years, with the retirement of combat vessels and the building of new frigates to supersede them.