F-35 and Super Hornet Back on the Table for Canada

 - February 26, 2018, 4:58 AM
One of Canada's aging Hornets is seen in Kuwait during Operation Impact in 2014. (Photo: Royal Canadian Air Force)

Following the relaunch on Dec. 12, 2017 of its Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP) to replace the CF-188 (F/A-18A/B) Hornet, the Canadian government has issued a list of eligible suppliers. While the inclusion of the three “Euro-canards”—Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen E/F—is no surprise, the inclusion of both Boeing and Lockheed Martin indicates a softening of policy toward the U.S. fighters, both of which have been the subject of considerable controversy in Canada.

Despite remaining a Level 3 industrial partner in the F-35 program, Canada cancelled its 65-aircraft order in November 2015. The action had been one of incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign pledges. While there had been concerns about the aircraft itself, particularly its high cost and whether it could be delivered in time to meet the Hornet’s expected out-of-service date, there were objections to the way it had been ordered by the previous government through an untendered procurement process with unclear costings.

In the wake of the cancellation, Canada was left with a potential capability gap. In more than three decades of service—including participation in several multinational campaigns in Iraq, the Balkans, Libya, and Syria—the CF-188 fleet had dwindled from 138 aircraft to its current level of 76. To remedy the situation, Canada announced an intention to buy 18 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in November 2016. Soon after, Royal Canadian Air Force staff met with the Royal Australian Air Force to learn lessons regarding procurement of the Super Hornet.

By August 2017 Canadian technicians were also assessing the state of Australia’s “legacy” Hornet fleet as a potential source of aircraft to bolster the RCAF’s force. In the following month Canada sent an Expression of Interest to Australia, covering the acquisition of 18 aircraft. That same month the U.S. government approved a Super Hornet sale, but subsequent events concerning the Bombardier/Boeing airliner trade dispute put an end to further negotiations.

Canada continues to negotiate with Australia regarding the surplus F/A-18 Hornets. Australia’s aircraft have been upgraded to extend their operational lives, including the adoption of the MBDA ASRAAM short-range missile in place of the standard AIM-9 Sidewinder.

In the meantime, FFCP continues with the F-35 and Super Hornet back in the running. An element of the request—presumably aimed at Boeing—notes: “The evaluation of bids will also include an assessment of bidders’ impact on Canada’s economic interests. When bids are assessed, any bidder that is responsible for harm to Canada’s economic interests will be at a distinct disadvantage.”

A full RFP for the government-to-government deal is expected in spring 2019, with contract award scheduled for 2021/22. First deliveries are slated for 2025, with initial operational capability a year later. Full operational capability is scheduled for 2031.