By Vincent J. Curtis
Canada’s choice for interim fighter aircraft to replace our aging CF-188 Hornets has been announced: Australia’s aging F-18 Hornets. That’s right, the aircraft our pilots are going fly — perhaps into 2035 — are coming from Crown Assets Disposal, Australia Division.
The reason why Australia is surplussing its early 1980s vintage F-18s is that they are replacing them right now with brand new F-35s from Lockheed Martin. You know, the aircraft the Trudeau team won’t touch because it got the cooties from Team Harper? The Australians, apparently, weren’t bothered by that.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) aren’t getting Super Hornets as interim replacements because Boeing had the temerity to take on domestic favourite, Bombardier.
Conspicuous by its absence has been noise favourable to the decision from the RCAF. The photo taken of the decision’s announcement team doesn’t have a single member of the RCAF at the table. Let’s apply a little Kremlinology to the photo and see what we can tease out of it.
The position of right marker is taken by Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance, and he is the one doing the talking. Next to him is Minister of National Defence (MND), Lieutenant-Colonel (ret’d) Harjit Sajjan, Vance’s nominal boss, with hands folded. Sajjan isn’t making the announcement perhaps because the government doesn’t want it to look like they are outright shafting the RCAF with the decision. With Vance ramrodding what the decision will be, it doesn’t look so bad.
Next to Sajjan is Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada. She being where she is is the only logical component of the photograph. Next to Qualtrough sits Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development. What is he doing there? He is just filling space, because buying used has nothing to do with innovation, science, or economic development.
Finally, at the end of the table, is Minister of Transport Marc Garneau. Again, what is he doing there other than filling space?
Chief of the Air Staff and Commander of the RCAF, Lieutenant-General Michael John Hood was nowhere in sight. Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) Patrick Finn was nowhere in sight. Neither gentleman was quoted saying something favourable in any of the stories I’ve read commenting on the decision at all. Not a peep from anyone having to fly in these aging Australian crates, the service history of which RCAF maintenance has only second-hand information.
The political dodging started immediately. When challenged on the decision, MND Sajjan always turned to saying that the government was actually announcing that the replacement competition would start … in another three years, 2020! That a replacement competition was to be held to avoid taking the F-35 was an announcement made during the 2015 election, and repeated immediately after the election of the Trudeau government. The competition to start in 2020 is to reach a decision in 2023 with first acquisition starting in 2025, according to MND Sajjan.
What is significant about those dates is that no one in the photograph is going to be around then. The next federal election is in 2019, which means the Trudeau government is making pledges potentially on behalf of its successor, and the next election after 2019 would conceivably be 2023 — the year of the announcement of the winner of the competition.
Vance will be retired. Sajjan, if he is around in 2023, won’t be Minister of National Defence; Garneau will likely have retired. Young Navdeep Bains and Carla Qualtrough might still be in cabinet — assuming the Trudeau government itself survives into 2023, by no means a given.
Given the state of play in the fighter market, in 2023 the Super Hornet will be off the market. Other than the F-16, which will still be around, and the F-35, the only other source of Gen 4.5 or greater aircraft will be the Saab Gripen from Sweden, the Dassault Rafale from France, or the Eurofighter Typhoon from a European consortium. I can’t imagine that either Russia or China would sell us aircraft that would be any good. Not much else to choose from, off the shelf.
These Australian jets don’t come for free. The estimate being kicked around is $500 million to get them air-worthy again. When challenged on that point, MND Sajjan would dodge, meaning that the amount is at least that much, and probably more. Note that the fly-away cost for 18 newly built F-16s from Lockheed Martin is in the neighbourhood of $750 million. For a few dollars more, the RCAF could have had absolutely new and certifiably air-worthy aircraft capable of carrying the load for 20 years, and the F-16 is famously low maintenance. Forty-year-old F-18s, not so much. You have to wonder if the lower initial investment won’t be offset by higher routine maintenance within five years.
The RCAF got shafted with the decision to take old Australian F-18s. They’re going to get shafted again in 2023 if the Trudeau government is still around. The silence from the RCAF brass is deafening. Can we expect a resignation or an early retirement from that quarter soon?