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The politics of replacing the CF-18

A Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 Hornet takes off on its last mission in Kuwait during Operation IMPACT in February 2016.
Combat Camera
Here we go again! On Nov. 22, Ottawa announced its long- sought solution to the apparently never-ending search for a replacement for Canada’s three-plus decades old CF-18 fighter aircraft. Remember that the government of Jean Chretien began the process in the late 1990s by signing an exploratory agreement to possibly join an international consortium producing the then very experimental stealth fighter/bomber, the Lockheed Martin F-35. Ottawa continued making payments to the consortium under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, who announced in 2010 that Canada would buy 65 F-35 aircraft.

Oh no, yelled the opposition, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the newspapers, the CBC, and a sea of talking heads in the media. The F-35 is a turkey. It’s too slow. It doesn’t perform. It’s much too expensive. The government is misleading Canadians as to its true cost, and on and on.

So in an almost unrivalled act of political cowardice, the Conservatives backed off, and proceeded to “study” the F-35 and other rival fighter jets to determine which was the best aircraft Canada could purchase to replace the ever aging CF-18s. (If this is beginning to sound very much like the story of Canada’s maritime helicopter replacement, it is only because it is a virtual carbon copy of that story.)

Then came the election of 2015 and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, knowing nothing about fighter jets but very much a canny politician, promised that if elected, Canada’s still-under-study replacement of the CF-18 with the F-35 would be halted and that any F-35 purchase would be off the table. Period. He did promise an “open competition” to replace the CF-18 even though an “open competition” would, by definition, have to include the F-35. But then, what is a contradiction to a politician other than a public relations problem to be resolved by sleight of hand?

Elected in October 2015, the Liberal government did not back out of the F-35 consortium because, in part, Lockheed Martin rightly and forcefully pointed out that Canadian aerospace firms would probably lose hundreds of millions of dollars in F-35 contracts if they did. Unsaid was the glaringly obvious proposition that if the Liberals went through with their “open competition” and barred Lockheed Martin from it, Lockheed Martin would no doubt have sued the pants off the government.

While this drama played out, Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan declared in early 2016 that the need for a quick enhancement of the CF-18 fleet had suddenly become very pressing if Canada was to continue to meet its NATO and Norad commitments. The problem with his declaration was that the air force had stated on several occasions that the current fleet of CF-18s, with a long-planned upgrade, would be sufficient to meet Canada’s needs until at least 2025.

Apparently Sajjan didn’t believe the air force, or, more likely, someone in government came up with a plan to fill the gap that Sajjan suddenly discovered while also getting Justin Trudeau off the hook for his promise to never buy the F-35. The solution announced in November? Buy 18 Super Hornets, a larger and newer cousin of the CF-18, made by Boeing, first produced 10 years ago! The idea was to fly both aircraft in the same air force even though the Super Hornet has as much in common with the CF-18 as a flea does with a killer bee—they are virtually two different aircraft. Buying 18 of these aircraft also means that at most a dozen could be deployed at any one time if necessary.

And the F-35? Well, the government will hold a five-year competition to find out what it ought to already know from innumerable studies under three governments, and dozens of competitions held in other countries—almost all of which have been won by the F-35—to find a replacement for the CF-18. Which means that, as the air force has said, the current fleet of CF-18s will most definitely fly into the 2020s. But it also means that the F-35 is still in contention. So, no cancellation of contracts for Canadian aerospace companies, no lawsuit from Lockheed Martin, no embarrassing volte-face for Trudeau and no decision until after the next federal election. Ingenious! 

A news item that passed unnoticed in the Canadian press one week later is worth noting here. The Israeli Air Force, which may know a thing or two about combat aviation, announced that it was increasing the number of F-35s on order from 33 to 50. That’s the same aircraft Trudeau declared in the House of Commons did not work. By the time this column appears, the Israelis are expected to have taken delivery of at least the first two of its new aircraft.



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