The Canadian Senate’s Committee on National Security and Defence has urged the Trudeau government to nix plans to buy the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as a replacement for the CF-188 Hornets the Royal Canadian Air Force currently flies. The Committee, composed of independent, Conservative and Liberal Party senators, recently released its latest report on Canadian defense issues, Reinvesting in the Canadian Armed Forces: A Plan for the Future. Within this report was a discussion of the future of the RCAF’s aging CF-18s and what needs to be done to keep the service on par with those of partner nations, including the United States.
The broad conclusion of the bi-partisan report was that a sole-source “interim” purchase of 18 Super Hornets to fill a supposed “capability gap” within the RCAF is a resoundingly poor decision based on a number of factors, not limited to the financial implications of operating both the Super Hornet and the “legacy” Hornets side-by-side, and budgetary issues that have left the Canadian Forces in a bind, especially at a time when the Royal Canadian Navy is undergoing a recapitalization project of its own to replace its warships with newer, more capable vessels. The Canadian Forces simply doesn’t have the money to fly the Super Hornet for a limited term (12 to 15 years) for an estimated cost ranging between $5 to $7 billion CAD, and then reinvest in a different follow-on fighter aircraft as a more long-term solution.
Instead, the Committee noted that a far more cost-effective option is available to the Canadian government – buying used up-to-date legacy Hornets from partner nations like the United States and Australia to fill the “gap” while initiating the fighter procurement program the Liberal government promised but failed to live up to during the 2015 Canadian election season. This method was endorsed by no less than 13 retired RCAF general officers in an open letter to the incumbent administration as a “better way of keeping the RCAF operationally effective until its fleet of CF-18s is replaced with a modern fighter.” The letter goes on to note the obvious issues with buying the Super Hornet that the government has seemingly outright ignored:
“Although the Super Hornet does have some commonality with our current CF-18s, it is a different airplane, requiring its own training system for pilots and technicians, as well as new flight simulators, logistic support and maintenance organizations specific to the Super Hornet. The air force would have to draw personnel from the existing CF-18 fighter fleet (usually its most experienced people) to help bring into service a new and more complex fleet of fighter aircraft. But that would not be enough. It would be necessary to recruit, train and qualify several hundred new technicians and dozens of pilots. Recent experience indicates that the RCAF would face difficulty in achieving this; it can take four to five years from recruitment to produce fully trained, operationally ready pilots and specialists for advanced fighter aircraft. We foresee that bringing in an interim fleet would create serious practical problems of this kind.”
– OTTAWA, Feb. 23, 2017 An Open Letter from Former Air Force Commanders to the Prime Minister (Appendix A in the Report)
The letter also attacks the notion of a “capability gap” as the prime motivation behind buying Super Hornets, considering that Canada hasn’t had a sufficient number of fighter aircraft to maintain its defense commitments to NATO and NORAD simultaneously for years, and yet, the RCAF has still managed to contribute operationally in coordination with partner nations with great effectiveness. Thus, a “capability gap” isn’t as sudden and frightfully concerning as the Liberal government had earlier made it out to be.
With all this in mind, the Committee reminded the government of the benefits of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, which current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly denounced as part of his campaign platform. The long-term financial benefits alone, worth more than $11 to 12 billion CAD, far exceeded the overall projected cost of buying the full-sized fleet of F-35A Lightning II stealth strike fighters that earlier Conservative and Liberal governments had envisioned. The F-35 program, though fairly controversial, has managed to meet and exceed performance expectations over the past few years, entering service with the US Air Force and US Marine Corps. The Canadian government had previously invested in the progenitor of the F-35, the Joint Strike Fighter program, in the 1990s, and had a full return on its investment with a profit by the program’s conclusion and evolution from the X-35 to the F-35. As such, the RCAF was expected to buy between 65-70 F-35As to supersede its Hornets, but plans were stalled due to blowback on a perceived lack of transparency on the purchase by the previous Harper government.
All in all, the Committee concluded its investigation into the CF-18 replacement scheme with the following recommendation:
“That the Government of Canada immediately commence a competition to replace the fighter jets and make a decision by June 30, 2018; and,
That the Government of Canada cancel the interim fighter jet replacement plan.”
– Reinvesting in the Canadian Armed Forces: A Plan for the Future, pg 12.
The report calls for hearings on the interim purchase of the Super Hornets in 2017 and 2018 to ensure that taxpayer-based funding is used appropriately and efficiently to meet Canada’s defense needs. Conversely, it’s possible that the Liberal government steamrolls ahead with its Super Hornet plan, though likely at the cost of retaining power in the Canadian legislative houses. You can read the report for yourself below; the section regarding the CF-18’s replacement begins on Page 10