By David Pugliese
In the coming years, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s roundel will be affixed to Boeing’s Super Hornet fighter jet.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Procurement Minister Judy Foote announced on November 22 the government’s decision to enter into discussions with the U.S. aerospace firm and the American government for the eventual purchase of 18 F/A-18 Super Hornets.
During the announcement, the ministers noted that only after the government was satisfied on price and other issues would it then consider buying the jets.
But defence and industry sources say that, unless there is a major and totally unforeseen issue in the process, Canada will indeed acquire the Super Hornets.
Sajjan has called the purchase an “interim” measure until a competition can be held for a new fighter jet fleet. He blamed the previous Conservative government for mismanaging the fighter jet replacement, and through their inaction on replacing the existing CF-18s, creating a hole in Canada’s defences.
“Because they were not replaced we now have a capability gap,” Sajjan said.
So as a result, the Super Hornets will be used to augment the existing CF-18 fleet, which is now 35 years old.
Boeing’s Super Hornet has been on the radar for the Liberals for at least a year. During the federal election the party highlighted the aircraft as a cheaper alternative to the F-35, while claiming it had no preference for a specific plane.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, with advice from Sajjan, had been leaning towards the Super Hornet option starting in May, sources add. The Liberals first floated the idea of an interim purchase of Super Hornets in June but the proposal seemed to disappear in the face of opposition in the House of Commons.
However, it never left the agenda, say government insiders.
Asked why the Super Hornet was selected, Foote said Canada needs “a plane that’s not in development” — a pointed dig at the Lockheed Martin F-35, which the Liberals contend is still a developmental aircraft.
“The Super Hornet is not in development and we needed a plane that wasn’t in development,” Foote repeated a number of times in the news conference to announce the Super Hornet deal.
But journalists also pointed out that European aircraft — the Gripen, Typhoon and Rafale — were also mature planes and not in development.
It was here that Foote highlighted the perspective of not only government but of the RCAF senior leadership.
“We’re working with the American government, so we have to look at an American plane,” Foote explained.
Sajjan also highlighted that aspect, adding that interoperability in the U.S.–Canada North American Aerospace Defence Command, or NORAD, is “extremely important.”
“We, based on the analysis that has been provided, believe the Super Hornet meets those needs,” Sajjan said.
In addition, Foote rejected criticism that the Liberals were providing Boeing with a major advantage in the eventual competition for the future fighter aircraft fleet. Not only would the RCAF have the infrastructure in place to handle the Super Hornets, but pilots would already be trained on the aircraft, making them an obvious choice for the future fighter jet. But Foote dismissed claims those issues give Boeing an edge.
“We’re not stacking the deck in favour of Boeing anymore than we are in favour of Lockheed Martin by staying in the Joint Strike Fighter program,” Foote said.
Sajjan said the 18 Super Hornets would significantly lessen the risks associated with a capability gap. Bringing in the new aircraft as soon as possible will have real operational benefits, he added.
Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance had nothing but praise for the Liberal government’s decision. “This announcement represents a firm commitment to Canadian air power for decades to come and a crucial investment in the defence of Canada,” he said. “This is indeed a great day for the Canadian Armed Forces and for the Royal Canadian Air Force.”
Still unknown, however, are the costs, delivery dates and industrial benefits associated with the proposed purchase. Foote said the government has a sense of what the Super Hornets will cost but still has to enter into negotiations with Boeing.
“It’s really important for us to be able to sit down with them, see what they can provide, what the best service we can get from them in terms of capability,” she said. “So we will have that discussion with them during the negotiations. And after that, of course, once we’re convinced that they can do the job that needs to be done, at a price that’s fair for Canadians, then that price will be made public.”
Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, said Boeing would be required to invest dollar-for-dollar into the Canadian economy the value of the Super Hornet purchase. “When we talk about economic benefit, we want to see what is the best possible outcome for Canadian businesses, and of course, the jobs associated with that,” he added.
So what happens now?
“PSPC (Public Services and Procurement Canada), in consultation with the Department of National Defence and Innovation, Science and Economic Development, will engage with the U.S. government and the aircraft manufacturer regarding an interim fighter capability,” explained PSPC spokesman Jean-François Létourneau. “These discussions will focus on issues such as cost, delivery timelines, any required modifications to the aircraft, among other items.”
Létourneau said following the discussions, PSPC will draft a Letter of Request to the U.S. government, which will provide Canada with the aircraft.
The 18 aircraft will be a standard Super Hornet variant, a DND official told Esprit de Corps. The purchase would not include the Growler electronic warfare variant purchased by Australia.
It is not known when the negotiations for the aircraft would be finished. Industry sources say it will take about two years from the contact signing to the delivery of the first planes.
Boeing spokesman D. Scott Day noted that the Super Hornet can fulfill Canada’s “immediate needs for sovereign and North American defence.”
Day added that the “Super Hornet’s advanced operational capabilities, low acquisition and sustainment costs, and Boeing’s continued investment in the Canadian aerospace industry — US$6-billion over the past five years alone, especially in Winnipeg and Manitoba — make the Super Hornet the perfect complement to Canada’s current and future fighter fleet.”
Boeing also highlights the work Canadian firms currently do on a variety of its aircraft. In all, some 2,000 Canadians are employed by the firm.
Day pointed out that, as of September 2016, more than 720 Super Hornets and Growlers have been delivered, all on cost and on schedule.
Meanwhile, Boeing is already setting the stage for support and industrial benefits to Canada. On November 28 it announced a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with L-3 MAS under which the companies will collaborate on production and support of the F/A-18 Super Hornet should Canada move forward with the acquisition of the 18 aircraft.
“Boeing has a long-term commitment to Canada, and as we prepare for the potential procurement of Super Hornets, we aim to continue to bring meaningful and beneficial work opportunities to companies throughout the country,” Jim Barnes, Boeing’s director of Global Marketing for Canada, said in a statement. “Our work with L-3 MAS is just one example of how we leverage the breadth and depth of Canadian industry to support the country’s air force.”
L-3 MAS is one of more than 560 Boeing suppliers across Canada that support the firm’s various commercial and defence platforms.
In October 1986, L-3 MAS was awarded an integrated technical support contract for the CF-18 Hornet, an aircraft that was first produced by McDonnell Douglas before the company merged with Boeing in 1996. Currently, L-3 MAS also provides technical publications and support test equipment for Canada’s Chinook helicopter program.
“Over the past 30 years, L-3 MAS has demonstrated that it has the experience and capabilities needed to support the Super Hornet platform,” Jack House, vice president of Boeing Defense, Space & Security Supplier Management, said in a statement. “We’re confident that this MoU will help us to identify key areas of collaboration and further establish the Canada-based supply team who will provide support to the greater Super Hornet industry team.”
The F/A-18 Super Hornet is a twin-engine, supersonic, all-weather multirole fighter jet. Boeing offers a suite of upgrades to the F/A-18 Super Hornet, including conformal fuel tanks, an enclosed weapons pod, an enhanced engine and a reduced radar signature. These capabilities, along with other advanced technologies, offer U.S. and international customers a menu of next-generation capabilities to affordably outpace future threats, according to Boeing.
Boeing officials point out their aircraft is combat-proven and, with orders from the U.S. Navy and other nations, will be operating into the 2040s.
The company also highlighted the fact that the aircraft’s two engines provide added safety for Arctic operations.
The jet has its landing gear designed to take the pounding of short landings on aircraft carriers, a design that works nicely with the forward operating locations in Canada’s Arctic, company officials note.
Another feature is that the Super Hornet can act as a refueller for other Super Hornets, extending its range significantly.
In addition, since the RCAF already operates the CF-18 Hornet, there should be a smooth training transition for the F/A-18 Super Hornet. The aircraft can also make use of Canada’s existing infrastructure.