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Hornets, Super Hornets and Lightnings

U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornets fly a combat patrol over Afghanistan in 2008.
Staff Sgt. Aaron Allmon/U.S. Air Force
It seemed like an idea right out of left field at the time.

Critics have been questioning the wisdom of the proposed purchase of 18 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets ever since the government announced last November that it would explore the option as a stopgap until it makes a final decision on new fighters.

Now Ottawa appears to be stepping back from a potential deal with the plane’s American builder, even though the U.S. Department of Defence announced on Sept. 12 that it supports the $6.4-billion sale.

Speaking in Kelowna, B.C., on Sept. 6, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the government is considering alternatives, including used F/A-18A/B Hornets from Australia.

The course change comes as the Chicago-based aviation giant pursues an unfair subsidies complaint against Canada’s Bombardier Inc. at the International Trade Commission. Talks for a negotiated settlement broke off this week.

“Canada is reviewing current military procurement that relates to Boeing, as Boeing is pursuing unfair and aggressive trade action against the Canadian aerospace sector,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement on Sept. 5. “Meanwhile, Boeing receives billions in support from U.S. federal, state and municipal governments.”

Sajjan put it more succinctly: “We are looking at other options.”

A team of defence officials has already had a look at Australia’s used aircraft, which it is divesting as it readies its air force for delivery of new Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighters. Some experts contend the Australian Hornet jets would be a wiser purchase.

“It’s a far better idea than buying Super Hornets because you’re at least conceptually using the same airframe,” the former chief of the defence staff, Tom Lawson, told The Canadian Press (CP).

“If they are interested in addressing the short-term capability gap, then they may want to consider that, and it’s a far, far better plan, far less expensive and far less interruptive than purchasing Super Hornets.”

There are other options. CP reported that Kuwait is replacing its Hornet fleet with Super Hornets, while other allies will be shedding used F-16s and other fighters as they bring in F-35s.

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II aircraft.
Justin Trudeau scrapped a planned F-35 purchase early in his tenure as prime minister, saying Canada requires a defensive weapon, not a combat strike aircraft with expensive stealth technologies.

Yet he did not take the F-35 off the table. The government renewed Canada’s participation in the Joint Strike Fighter program in the fall of 2016. And, in announcing an open call for proposals for a new fighter jet a month later, Trudeau said the F-35 would not be excluded from the process.

Ottawa has not formally walked away from its plan to purchase the Super Hornets, either. But the dispute is growing uglier by the week.

Boeing complained in April to the U.S. commerce department that the Canadian and Quebec governments were unfairly subsidizing Bombardier’s C Series planes after Bombardier sold 75 CS100s to Delta Air Lines at a cut rate.

Bombardier has denied wrongdoing and is defending itself at the ITC, which could impose fines or tariffs if the complaint is upheld.

“The bottom line is that Boeing’s petition is meritless and based on false assumptions citing a campaign in which they didn’t even compete,” Brian Tucker, a spokesman for Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, told The Globe and Mail. “Boeing’s petition is a direct attack on innovation, competition, development and jobs on both sides of the border.”

Trudeau even phoned Eric Greitens, governor of Missouri, home of the Super Hornet assembly plant. According to the statement from his office, the two discussed “the shared importance of the aerospace industry to both economies.”

“This included a discussion on Canada’s possible purchase of Boeing’s Super Hornet fighter jets and the number of Missouri jobs that depend on the manufacturing of that aircraft,” said the release.

“Canada-Missouri bilateral trade was valued at US$8.2 billion in 2016, and 163,800 jobs in Missouri depend on trade and investment with Canada. Canada is Missouri’s top trading partner.”

Nevertheless, Lisa Campbell, head of military procurement at Public Services and Procurement Canada, told CP that officials are still waiting for the U.S. to say when the Super Hornets could be delivered, and at what cost.

The wire service reported that Ottawa requested information in March, and expected an answer by Sept. 1, but it had heard nothing through the second week of the month.

The U.S. commerce department will present the findings of its probe into Boeing’s Bombardier complaint on Sept. 25.


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