Boeing Shows Super Hornets Bristling With 14 Missiles In Formal Sales Pitch To Canada
Boeing’s Super Hornet is now formally competing against Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and Saab’s Gripen E to become Canada’s next fighter jet.
Boeing has formally submitted its Block III F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to the Royal Canadian Air Force's competition to select its next fighter jet. The company also released concept art of the configuration it is pitching to the Canadians, which shows aircraft equipped with conformal fuel tanks, carrying a podded infrared search and track sensor, and armed with an impressive 12 AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles and a pair of shorter-range AIM-9X Sidewinders. Lockheed Martin is also competing with its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Saab has submitted its Gripen E.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) is hoping to receive 88 new fighter jets to replace its existing CF-18A/B+ Hornets under what is officially known as the Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP). Canada's Public Services and Procurement department announced that it had received all three formal proposals on July 31, 2020. The final contract could be worth between 15 and 19 Billion Canadian dollars, or between around $11.2 billion and nearly $14.2 billion in U.S. dollars at the present rate of conversion.
"We have a partnership with Canada that spans more than 100 years," Jim Barnes, the Director of Canada Fighter Sales at Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said in a statement regarding his company's submission. "The Super Hornet is the most cost-effective and capable option for the FFCP, and a Super Hornet selection will help the RCAF meet their mission needs."
The Boeing press release doesn't highlight any specific features of the Super Hornets that it is offering to the RCAF, but, as noted, the concept art shows jets with conformal fuel tanks (CFT). The CFTs are a key component of the Block III Super Hornet, which the Chicago-headquartered plane maker first developed for the U.S. Navy and that you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece.
The firm has highlighted in the past how the CFTs would fit well with Canada's requirements for its fighter jet fleets, which includes major air defense mission sets as part of the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and NATO's air policing operations in Europe. The extra fuel gives the jets extra range and allows them to stay on station longer without the burden of drop tanks that also take up underwing hardpoints that could be used for weapons or other stores. One of the aircraft in Boeing's concept art is also carrying a buddy refueling store, which would allow RCAF Super Hornets to refuel each other in flight. This could help further extend the ability of aircraft on patrol to stay aloft.
The podded infrared search and track sensor (IRST), which is built into a modified drop tank that the aircraft can carry on its centerline station, is another upgrade for the Super Hornet that the U.S. Navy has been working on for years now and that you can read about in much more detail in this recent War Zone feature. The IRST system offers an invaluable additional tool for spotting and tracking targets, including stealthy aircraft, at extended ranges that is also immune to electronic warfare jamming.
The Super Hornets would also come with an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar that would also offer improved target detection and target capabilities, especially compared to the RCAF's existing Hornets. Last month, the U.S. government actually approved the potential sale of an upgrade package for the CF-18A/B+s that would notably include refitting them with AN/APG-79(V)4 AESA radars.
That prospective deal also included a batch of AIM-9Xs, which are not presently in Canada's inventory, but is another item that Boeing has highlighted in announcing its Super Hornet offer for the RCAF. These Sidewinders are still receiving upgrades that are increasingly making them a longer-range, multi-purpose weapon rather than just a dogfighting missile, as you can read about in more detail in this previous War Zone story.
Overall, Boeing's concept art shows a serious air-to-air loadout overall, including five AIM-120s under each wing and another two on the aircraft's fuselage stations on the sides of the engine air intakes, representing around between $12 and $13 million in weapons alone. The Canadians had previously expressed an interest in buying AIM-120D missiles, the most advanced version of the AMRAAM to date, which would be a good fit for these new aircraft.
Boeing, which for a time looked like it might get shut out of the Canadian fighter jet competition over a tangential trade dispute, could actually have a leg up in the competition because of its long history working with the RCAF and its CF-18A/B+ fleet. The company's offer is "leveraging existing infrastructure to drive down the long-term sustainment cost of the aircraft," Barnes, the Director of Canada Fighter Sales, added in his statement. This is true in that there is an extensive commonality between the legacy Hornet and Super Hornet that goes far beyond hardware. Training and sustainment, in particular, enjoys substantial continuity between the two types.
Still, the Super Hornet offer is likely to face significant competition for the final contract, especially from Lockheed Martin's F-35. Canada is already a member of the Joint Strike Fighter Program, which has created unusual, but serious complications for the FFCP. Canadian authorities had planned to buy 65 of those jets before the Liberal Party government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau scrapped that deal after coming to power in 2015. The Canadian Department of National Defense subsequently agreed to buy 25 ex-Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18A/B Hornets as an interim option, after a proposed purchase of 18 new F/A-18E/F Super Hornets from Boeing collapsed in 2017.
"We are extremely proud of our longstanding partnership with Canada, which has played a key role in the F-35's development," Greg Ulmer, F-35 Program Executive Vice President at Lockheed Martin, said in a statement. "The 5th Generation F-35 would transform the Royal Canadian Air Force fleet and deliver the capabilities necessary to safeguard Canadian skies. The F-35's unique mix of stealth and sensor technology will enable the Royal Canadian Air Force to modernize their contribution to NORAD operations, ensure Arctic sovereignty and meet increasingly sophisticated global threats."
The concept art that Lockheed Martin released along with its proposal notably shows F-35A variants with an optional drag chute installed on top of the rear fuselage. Lockheed Martin developed this feature first for Norway's F-35As, which is intended to help with landings on runways covered in snow or ice. The RCAF similarly operates from bases in areas where these weather conditions, as well as extremely low ambient temperatures, are common. Curiously, however, Canadian authorities have previously said that they will not conduct cold-weather testing on any of the entrants in the FFCP and instead rely on data already gathered as part of evaluations by other countries.
Saab's Gripen E is certainly more of a dark horse contender. The Swedish aviation company has been promoting significant potential industrial cooperation as a key component of Gripen offers to Canada and other prospective buyers, as well.
"The system [Gripen E] meets all of Canada’s specific defense requirements, offering exceptional performance and advanced technical capabilities," Jonas Hjelm, Senior Vice President and head of Saab's Aeronautics business area, said in a statement. "A guarantee to share key technology, in-country production, support and through-life enhancements will ensure that Canada’s sovereignty is enhanced for decades."
Gripen was designed to operate highly efficiently from austere conditions by small teams in cold climates, something that Canada could find attractive.
Canadian authorities hope to pick the winner of the FFCP competition in 2022. The goal is to have the first new fighter jet touch down in the country in 2025.
The competition over who will supply Canada's next fighter jet already looks set to be fierce in the coming years.
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