On fighter aircraft and political games


by David Bercuson

Frontline Defence
December 11, 2017

Two unrelated events occurred on December 5 which reflect the political game the Liberal government is playing with the very serious project of replacing Canada’s 30 year old CF-18 fighter aircraft. 

First, the Israeli Air Force announced that its first squadron of F-35 fighter bombers was going operational. Israel has nine of the aircraft, having received its first two about a year ago.  Originally it had announced the purchase of 33 F-35s, but while Ottawa continued to dither on what course it was going to take to replace the CF-18s, Israel added another 17 to its purchase – to bring its total fleet to 50. The entire complement of 50 will be operational by 2024.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, the government announced that it was cancelling its sole source purchase of 18 Super Hornets and, instead, would buy 30 used F/A-18 fighters from Australia. The cancellation of the Super Hornet purchase comes as a direct result of Boeing’s complaints to the U.S. government that the Bombardier C series passenger jets that were to be purchased by a U.S. airline were heavily subsidized by the Canadian and Quebec governments, resulting in the U.S. slapping duties of over 300% on the Bombardier aircraft.

There are several considerations here that should get close attention from Canadian taxpayers.

The CF-18s are on their last legs. They may have another five years of operations, but only with expensive maintenance and by having pilots do much or even most of their training on simulators to save strain on the airframe. No one disputes that fact, but another fact that is indisputable is that early this year the Minister of National Defence announced that the current fleet of 70+ aircraft was no longer capable of fulfilling Canada’s obligations to both NATO and NORAD and so the government was going to make an immediate sole source purchase of 18 Super Hornets to carry the Air Force from where it is now to the time when the new fighter aircraft would start to replace the CF-18s.

Now, if there was and is, an immediate crisis approaching that will render the RCAF incapable of fulfilling its obligations, what impact will the cancellation of the Super Hornet purchase have on Canada’s fighter capabilities? The Australian F/A-18s are of the same vintage as our own CF-18s and can have no more life left in them than our own aircraft. Further, the Australian F/A-18s have not had the many upgrades that our fighters have had and have had serious corrosion problems with their airframes. 

No doubt the RCAF will be very careful in picking the 30 Australian fighters, but so what? Even if they are the cream of the Australian crop, they can have no more time on their air frames than we have on our own CF-18s. That means that the mixed Canadian/Australian fleet will run out of time by 2022, which is just about the time that Ottawa will be in the middle of its announced five year competition to replace the CF-18 fleet. So what will Ottawa do? Spend billions more on further life-extension programs for the existing fighter fleet when a new fighter aircraft will then be just around the corner?

And why plan (as they announced in the last election and will reiterate next week) that the competition to replace the Canadian fleet will take five years and will not begin until 2019? Can it be that since the next election is due in 2019 that the government is playing politics with the fighter replacement program? In fact if the competition will not begin until 2019 and will take five years, yet another election will be held before Ottawa finally announces what it will do to replace the CF-18s. By that time, four of the five aircraft the government must consider (including the Super Hornet) will be way past their prime, leaving the government free to finally choose the F-35 which, by then, will already be in the fleet of at least a dozen NATO nations.

There is only one conclusion that falls inevitably out of this entire charade; the government has no intention of ever using the CF-18s in any contested situation, no intention of supporting NATO deterrence against Russia with our fighter aircraft, and every intention of limiting what the CF-18s can do to meeting Ivan in his obsolete bombers at the far northern boundaries of Canadian airspace and usher them politely away.

David Bercuson, Research Director, Canadian Global Affairs Institute

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