By Vincent J. Curtis
If there are common elements in the government’s acquisition of new equipment for the Canadian Armed Forces, they are tardiness, indecision, and a lack of imagination. All three elements are at play in the selection of interim replacements for the CF-18 fleet or, more precisely, a lack of replacements.
The Liberal government boxed itself into a mess. To spite the legacy of the Harper government, the Trudeau Liberals announced that the F-35 would be the last aircraft on Earth that the government would buy to replace the CF-18. Instead, a prolonged and detailed examination of potential replacements was ordered, postponing a final decision.
The time would be filled by requiring world-renowned aircraft manufacturers to prove to the satisfaction of the Canadian government their capabilities to produce a world-renowned fighter aircraft, and then to have them teach our experts in the RCAF the art of sucking eggs in precise and excruciating detail.
Trouble in paradise arose when it became clear that the existing fleet of CF-18s on NORAD deployment would not last long enough for the Trudeau temporizing to play itself out. An “interim replacement” needed to be found.
The obvious choice was to acquire more F/A-18s. However, Boeing had moved on and the closest new thing to the old aircraft was the F/A-18 E/F Super-Hornet, built on an airframe some 25 per cent larger than the original Hornet model.
No problem. The Super Hornet was being sold by Boeing as completely interoperable with the older Hornet, and training and transition disruption to the new model would be minimal. Then, the Trudeau government made very public its displeasure with Boeing’s demand that the U.S. government impose import duties against a Canadian government favourite, Bombardier. In October, trade sanctions were imposed, import duties being a crippling 220 per cent.
There is lots of hypocrisy to go around. Boeing is the largest client of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, and Boeing doesn’t make an aircraft that competes in the same marketplace as the Bombardier one. Boeing argues that it saw Airbus, its largest competitor worldwide, start in the same way Bombardier did: as a small, regional manufacturer supported by government subsidies. And Boeing is doing extremely well, so well in fact that it will still do well without an order for Super Hornets from Canada.
The Trudeau government would be eating a good deal of crow to have to purchase Super Hornets from Boeing, and has started to look around for something else. There is talk of buying used Hornets from Australia, and Lockheed Martin is devilishly offering F-35s as “interim replacements.”
The obvious solution that is being missed requires an entrepreneurial mind to see. This solution is to truly embrace the interim notion, and to buy new F-16s to replace the old CF-18s, committing to employing them in the NORAD role for the next 10 to 20 years, postponing a decision on fifth-generation fighter jets for, well, the next generation.
The F-16 is still being produced by Lockheed Martin, and is presently in its V for Viper model. Because the Fighting Falcon is made by Lockheed Martin, we are keeping alive the company that may yet deliver us the F-35 — in 20 years’ time. The F-16V is configurable as an air-superiority dogfighter, or as a ground-attack aircraft; and the F-16 remains a front-line aircraft today in either role. It will remain a first-line fighter aircraft for the next decade or two. As a fighter platform, it outclasses the Super Hornet and the F-35; neither aircraft would want to engage an F-16 in a dogfight. The F-35 would need to rely on its stealthiness and long-range missiles to defeat an F-16 in aerial combat (i.e., before the F-16 saw it).
The chief reason the RCAF chose the F/A-18 Hornet over the F-16 35 years ago was because the Hornet had two engines and the Viper one. The second engine was supposed to be a margin of safety when flying over the high Arctic. But these past 35 years of practical experience have demonstrated the perfect reliability of the engine of the F-16. Furthermore, the F-35, which possesses only one engine, did not find its singularity an obstacle to acceptance by today’s RCAF. Looking back, choosing the F/A-18 over the F-16 was a mistake.
The solution to the Liberal government’s fighter dilemma is to fully embrace the interim idea. Perfect shouldn’t become the enemy of the good. New off the production line F-16Vs can fill the same role as the Hornet, and still be a relevant aircraft anywhere else in the world.
The government could buy F-16s in blocks of 20 at a time, with the intention of converting the RCAF over to that aircraft as its mainline fighter as the Hornets age out. The project would have a timeline of 20 years, with the intention of reviewing the status of fighter aircraft technology at that time. Commitment to the interim idea addresses the issue of retraining and multiple parts lists. Interim, in this case, means 20 years and not five.