Fighter replacement reaching new depths

GLOBAL OUTLOOK

by David Bercuson

Frontline Defence
September 18, 2017

The government’s initiative to replace Canada’s long-serving CF-18s with a new jet fighter (88 of them according to the June defence policy paper) is reaching new depths of hilarity. 

Canadian governments have known for almost two decades that the day of the CF-18 is almost over. Stalwart aircraft, the fighter jets have been updated at least twice – but there is only so much that can be done with an obsolete airframe, and it is time for Canada to join virtually all its allies in updating to a new and much more modern jet.

But Prime Minister Trudeau declared during his election campaign that Canada would never, ever buy the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – a solemn election declaration based on zero facts – and he is now in a very delicate situation.

Sometime last year, the government suddenly decided that the current CF-18 fleet (which was supposed to last at least another five years after its last update) was no longer viable, and that the air force needed a quick “gap filler” to fulfill Canada’s NORAD commitments between now and whenever the government actually decides which aircraft it will pick for a wholesale replacement of the CF-18. And when would that be? Why, after the next election, of course, when the Trudeau pledge would be forgotten and Canada could follow virtually every one of its major allies – especially the United States – and purchase the F-35.

Why wait until after the next election? In truth, there is no reason under the sun to take up to four years (the Liberal proposal) to hold a fighter competition. First of all, the F-35 is the only fighter aircraft (aside from the very advanced F-22, which is unavailable for export) the U.S. will be flying for at least the next three decades. Second, there have been at least a dozen countries that have picked the F-35 in their own competitions, and third, because almost all of Canada’s allies have selected the F-35 already.

In any case, what to do about filling the "gap" that the government suddenly decided exists between our CF-18s and the next fighter? Initially the government decided early this year to buy 18 Boeing F-18 Super Hornets. These fighters are somewhat larger and more capable than their CF-18 predecessors, and are flown almost exclusively by the U.S. Navy and by Australia. The Aussies bought them to fill a gap between their old F-18s and their new F-35s which will soon be delivered. Israel and Japan are, right now, taking delivery of their F-35s and other countries will soon begin to receive theirs. 

Not long after the Liberal government announced it was going to acquire the Super Hornets, Boeing brought a case to the United States trade commissioner complaining that the new Bombardier single-aisle jetliner was being “dumped” in the United States at artificially low prices.  Ottawa took umbrage and has, at least for now, quashed its deal with Boeing. 

How then to “fill the gap”?  Last week Canada sent representatives to Australia to check out the Royal Australian Air Force’s fire sale of its old F-18s because the Aussies are about to take delivery of their new F-35s. So, Canada is ready to lay cash on the line in “Hairy Harry’s Hornet sale” to buy airplanes to “fill the gap” that are as old as the fighters we are flying now. They can probably buy a few hundred bins of spare parts while they are at it. Maybe we will rummage around some Australian airfields to pick the best old set of wings here and the best old engine there so that we can make one flyable plane out three or four old ones that are not so flyable.

The whole situation has become a vast tragicomedy of errors, and it's beginning to look as silly as the decades-long effort (now finally coming to a conclusion) to replace the 1960s era Sea Kings. All because of a partisan political announcement by a man aspiring to become prime minister who knew nothing about the issues.


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