Canada Will Buy 18 Super Hornets as a Stopgap Solution for their Aging Fighter Fleet

In a move congruent to what Australia did some years back with the purchase of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, Canada will buy 18 units of the same aircraft to function as a stopgap measure of sorts for its fighter fleet of CF-188 Hornets, which is at the end of its originally projected lifespan.

The move is both surprising and unsurprising at the same time. The National Post had already reported a far back as June of this year that the Liberal Party government, led by PM Justin Trudeau had secretly resolved to buy the Super Hornet and were in the process of crafting a narrative to suit their goals, so as to not incur a costly lawsuit by Lockheed Martin, who had earlier tendered a massive sum of contracts in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars to Canadian aerospace and technology firms. These contracts were awarded back when it was virtually almost set in stone that Canada would purchase the F-35A Lightning II, a product of Lockheed Martin, after having been invested as a joint partner in the program since its inception in the mid-1990s.

An F/A-18E climbing after takeoff. Public domain photograph.

The Trudeau campaign platform on defense last year, during the Canadian federal elections, promised that the F-35 would be completely excluded from consideration as the replacement for the CF-188 Hornet. An apparent lack of transparency on the costs of procuring the Lightning II stalled the previous government’s attempt to carry on with the nearly two-decades old plan. Trudeau and his minister of defense, Harjit Sajjan then promised an open and transparent competition for a new fighter, which would determine the best aircraft for the RCAF’s needs going forward.

But that didn’t really happen.

After the National Post exposed the secret plan to buy the Super Hornet, the government backtracked in July, once again promising a fair and open competition and still wary of the potential for a lawsuit from Lockheed Martin. It was found that the narrative to buy the Super Hornet would claim that the new aircraft would be an interim replacement for the Hornet, the most aged of which in the RCAF are more than 30 years old. That is exactly what’s unfolding in front of the Canadian public at the moment.

VFA-106 F/A-18F Super Hornet. TACAIRNET photograph by Ian D’Costa (copyrighted).

The problem here is that buying the Super Hornet is anything but an interim solution. The price tag for 18 aircraft, including operation, training, parts and support, will  without a doubt raise costs substantially. The RCAF, considering a tight defense budget which will be further spread thin with an extremely costly naval modernization program in the cards for the Royal Canadian Navy, will be unable to maintain more than one type of aircraft, simply because it’s just too damned expensive. So when it comes time for that new “fair and open” competitor to conclude, you can bet your boots that it’ll be the Super Hornet which takes the cake, because Canada can’t afford to fly them, and then a different type (e.g. The Saab Gripen NG) which will come with its own spending tab including operations, support, training, parts, etc.

In fact, the primary reason the RCAF moved to the CF-18 in the 1980s was because of costs… it was far too difficult to keep the CF-5 Freedom Fighter, the CF-104 Starfighter and the CF-101 Voodoo flying together, draining financial resources like a Dodge truck guzzles gasoline. Therefore, when the time comes for the “open and fair” competition (which is apparently being started for the third time since Trudeau took office) to conclude, it’s likely that the Canadian government will buy more Super Hornets to replace the RCAF’s older Hornets entirely.
So in buying the 18 Super Hornets, the Canadian government has effectively determined the future of the RCAF to be rooted completely in the Super Hornet airframe, which will be facing retirement and replacement by the US Navy, its primary user, by 2030-2035. So much for transparency, eh?

But that’s not saying that the Super Hornet is an incapable aircraft. In fact, it has proven itself to be a really worth multmission platform, far more advanced than the aircraft it was built to replace- the F-14D Tomcat. The problem with the aircraft is the fact that it will be outclassed within the next 15 years or less. With China, Japan, Sweden, Turkey, Russia and India developing their own 5th  generation multi role stealth fighter aircraft and marketing them worldwide, it’s only a matter of time till the Super Hornet, a 4.5th generation fighter, won’t be able to stand up effectively to such adversaries. Hence why the US Navy is already looking into replacing the Super Hornet with a 6th generation solution by 2030. This necessarily points to the RCAF needing a replacing for the Super Hornet in 13 years, stretching it to 18 at most by the time the Super Hornet reaches total obsolescence as a viable air-to-air fighter. And this also means that the Canadian defense budget won’t be able to handle another costly expense on a new fighter procurement program, further effectively screwing the RCAF over.

At the moment, the RCAF’s fleet of Hornets will be viable up to 2025, when they will absolutely have to be retired, thanks to a service life extension plan. You can expect the final decision, likely in the form of 60-80 Super Hornets, to be made much before then. It’s also currently unclear as to whether or not the 18 Super Hornets will be bought second-hand from the US Navy (i.e. Some of their oldest birds, due to be retired), or brand new off the line at St. Louis, Missouri. When defense minister Sajjan gave his presser on the plan, his language seemed to indicate that Canada would pursue the first option rather than the second.


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