Report Says Canada Will Buy Super Hornets As An Interim Fighter Solution

Is logic finally prevailing with Ottawa's fighter ambitions?

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Over the past decade, Canada has lived through its own unique F-35 saga. It even crept into this TV spot where little kids compare their fighter jets. The conservative government of Stephen Harper had a fixation on buying just 65 examples of the stealth jet to replace the country's overextended fleet of 80 CF-18A+ Hornets. When liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took power early last winter, he made it clear that the F-35 deal was not going to happen. Now Trudeau’s cabinet has reportedly decided to order a batch of F/A-18 Super Hornets as an interim fighter solution, pushing off a potential legal backlash from rejecting the F-35 outright.

The Super Hornet has long been the right choice to fulfil Canada’s strategic needs while also sticking to its budgetary limitations (make sure to read all about why here). Even buying a relatively small batch of say 24 Super Hornets would be a great solution for taking the pressure off of the RCAF’s aging and over-worked “legacy” CF-18 Hornet fleet.  

Such a move still leaves the door open for Canada to buy F-35s, or more Super Hornets for that matter, in the future. In essence, by procuring a batch of Super Hornets now, Canada not only buys itself time and lowers its financial risk, but it also allows its air arm to better identify what they truly need in a future fighter by buying and flying the F-35’s most logical alternative.

As part of this interim batch, the RCAF would be smart to acquire at least some two-seat F model Super Hornets as they can be converted to EA-18G Growler configuration in the future. This would be highly beneficial if single seat F/A-18E Super Hornets are bought to replace the rest of CF-18 fleet or even if the F-35 ends up in the RCAF’s fighter ranks in the coming decade.

Having an organic electronic attack and jamming platform integrated into Canada’s fighter force would drastically increase its Hornets survivability during combat operations and the F/A-18Fs converted to EA-18G standard would be very useful for NATO integrated air operations which largely lack such a capability outside of what the US can provide.

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Australia, who also flies older F/A-18A/B Hornets like Canada, has executed a similar strategy, buying F/A-18Fs as an interim solution before the F-35A comes online. This along with the procurement of the AGM-158 JASSM standoff stealthy land-attack missiles allowed Royal Australian Air Force to finally retire the geriatric and expensive, but greatly beloved F-111 Aardvark. In the future, some of Australia’s F/A-18Fs could be converted to Growler standard as some came from the factory with all the wiring to do so.

According to National Post, the move to buy Super Hornets as only an interim solution will also likely stave off a serious set of  expensive lawsuits that could be filed by Lockheed Martin for blocking a potential F-35 purchase entirely, stating:

“The Liberals promised during the election campaign not to buy the F-35 to replace the CF-18s. But the government has been struggling with how to fulfil that promise for fear any attempt to exclude the stealth fighter from a competition will result in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit, according to one senior Defense Department official.”

It’s very likely that once Canada is operating Super Hornets they will realize how big of a jump in capability the jet provides for the money and how well suited the type is for their specific needs. Additionally, these new fighters could likely be acquired at a very good price considering Boeing’s need to keep its Super Hornet production line open, and its St Louis fighter plant operating well into the foreseeable future.

After years of waiting, Kuwait has yet to be cleared to order a batch of 28 Super Hornets that the Obama Administration has been withholding. Congress has added 16 of the cost-effective and proven fighters to its 2017 and 2018 defense budgets, with more on an unfunded priorities list that could also be added. These orders should keep the line humming for a couple more years at best, but Boeing says it needs to build 24 jets a year to keep the line operating efficiently. As such, if Canada does not place an order soon, and if the Kuwaiti buy stays in limbo or other potential customers don’t put in orders (Malaysia for instance), Canada may not have a Super Hornet option to chose from at all. With this in mind, it is understandable how moving rapidly to purchase Super Hornets is becoming a priority in Ottawa.

Although fielding the F-35 sometime in the next decade would still be a possibility for Canada, buying Super Hornets now will also buy Ottawa time to see how the troubled fighter program pans out. This would mean that Canada would be buying a far more mature F-35 than the examples being delivered in the near term. Basically the move is a massive risk reduction exercise that is totally understandable considering just how uncertain the F-35 program has proven to be.

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The fact that the RCAF’s legacy Hornet fleet is failing to meet the country’s military commitments is not surprising either. The National Post quotes an official in Minister of National Defense Harjit Sajjan’s office as stating:

“The government is working very hard on this file as it must because today the Canadian Armed Forces are risk-managing a gap between our NATO and NORAD obligations, and the number of planes we can put in the air on any given day… That capability gap is expected to grow in the years ahead, and that’s an unacceptable situation.”

The US Navy and Marine Corps’ legacy Hornets, among other key platforms, are also suffering from abysmal availability rates after a decade and a half of continuous warfare. As a result of this, and due to delays in the F-35 program, America's legacy Hornets and even Super Hornets are having to get their lives extended. This has led to a train wreck at America’s F/A-18 Hornet depots which were never specifically set up to be running expansive life-extension programs.

Canada’s move to field a interim fighter before going all-in on the F-35 program also sends a strong alternative message to other F-35 customers who are also dealing with flying ever smaller fleets of aging fighters as they decide to gamble on the F-35 or not. Such a "wait and see" strategy may prove more acceptable, both politically and economically, than being early adopters of the $115,000,000 stealth fighters. It is likely that leasing strategies would be put forward by 4th generation fighter manufacturers to fulfil this very scenario if Canada proves the model with Super Hornets.

If the National Post’s report proves to be accurate and the Super Hornet procurement decision is in fact being prepared for official roll-out, it underlines Prime Minister Trudeau’s campaign promise to rationalize Canada’s military posture and weapons procurement doctrine. Considering that he followed through with his plan to pull Canada’s Hornets out of the anti-ISIS bombing campaign, it is not just possible, but probably that he is doing the same when it comes to stopping Canada’s headlong dive into the F-35 abyss.

Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com

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