CDA Institute guest contributor Jeff Collins, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University, compares the capabilities of the F-35 and Super Hornet, in light of the Liberal Party’s recently released defence platform.
After a long quiet spell, the F-35 was back in the news again last week when the federal Liberal Party released its defence platform on 20 September. The most prominent item among its three pages of policy prescriptions was the promise to not purchase the F-35 and, instead, opt for a cheaper alternative. Tellingly, the example the Liberals used to illustrate the benefits of an open competition was Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet.
While the platform stressed that the Super Hornet was only there for comparison purposes, it is unlikely that this was coincidental; the aircraft has been touted in the press for some time as a likely contender for replacing the country’s 77 – soon to be 65 – aging CF-18s should the federal government reopen the tendering process. But first, it is worth noting the two reasons the Liberals give for excluding Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
First, they want to the remove some of the cash the Conservatives allocated to the CF-18 replacement project and use it to cover the funding gaps in the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) fleet recapitalization plans. It is hard to disagree with the rationale of this approach. As it stands now, inflation has chipped away at the funding envelopes for the Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship, Joint Support Ship, and Canadian Combatant Surface projects. Without an injections of cash soon, the RCN will likely end up with fewer ships with less capabilities. Hardly ideal.
Second, the Liberals want to see any CF-18 replacement jet be chosen through a “truly open and transparent competition.” Emphasizing that the primary mission of the Canadian Armed Forces is the defence of the continent, the platform proceeds to state that the new competition will exclude “requirements that do not reflect Canada’s interests, such as first-strike stealth capabilities.” With the Super Hornet as its example, it is claimed that an open competition can get the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) a new fighter at less than half of the flyaway cost of an F-35, $65 million versus $170-180 million, respectively.
Leaving aside the issue of sustainable acquisition funding for the RCN, it is worth evaluating the idea of whether ditching the F-35 in favour of the Super Hornet is a sensible solution to Canada’s fighter aircraft requirement. The ‘less money equals more jets’ proposition is attractive given the general public confusion surrounding exactly how much the F-35 will cost taxpayers, and whether its intended capabilities are what the RCAF needs to fulfill its domestic and international roles. Consequently, it is within this context that the Super Hornet is posited, by some, as a low-cost, effective option.
Defence critic Michael Byers, for example, has been one of the more prominent champions of the Super Hornet. He writes that the Super Hornet offers Canada: (1) low sustainment costs – half of that of an F-35; (2) twin engines – so it can effectively and safely patrol the northern half of the continent; (3) ease of training – given the familiarity between it and the existing CF-18 fleet; and (4) the ability to provide the RCAF with a two decade window in order to best decide whether to opt for a new fleet of manned aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles. Outside of these more technical points, Byers argues that the F-35 is not suited for the missions Canada engages in, which he argues are chiefly air patrols and bombing operations against weak or non-existent air defence protected targets.
Super Hornet advocates frequently cite Australia as a country worth emulating, given their purchase of 24 Super Hornets in 2010. But, as the National Post reported in 2012, the Aussie Super Hornets are hardly a bargain. At a cost of C$5.1 billion for both acquisition ($3.67 billion) and 10 years of sustainment ($1.43 billion), Canberra will pay roughly $212.5 million per jet. Meanwhile, Ottawa’s projected cost for 65 F-35s, based on 20 years of sustainment, is $249 million per jet.
Similarly, lost in the Australian comparison is the reason why Canberra purchased the Super Hornet: not to replace the older F-18 fleet but to fill the void left by the retirement of the F-111 long-range strike aircraft. Canberra is still planning to acquire up to 72 F-35s to replace its F-18 fleet with options for another 28. The same applies to the U.S. Navy, who are also intent on buying another two-to-three dozen Super Hornets “in order to have enough aircraft to meet missions as the service awaits the F-35.”
On the issue of sustainment costs, Boeing’s production line in St. Louis, Missouri is set to close by the end of 2017. The company requires orders of at least two aircraft a month to make production viable. While a possible decision by Kuwait to buy 40 Super Hornets will give the factory a boost, the ability of the RCAF to hypothetically access decades’ worth of spare parts and support will diminish as more and more Super Hornets are retired from service and replaced with F-35s.
Regarding the reliability of a single-engine fighter, contemporary jet propulsion technology is of such advanced stage that a single-engine fighter is more than capable of meeting Canadian needs. In fact, the issue of twin-engines was not a decisive factor in the selection of the CF-18 in the 1980. Moreover, allies with similar operating constraints as Canada have not been deterred from purchasing the single-engine F-35. Norway, population five million, stands by their plan to buy 52 F-35s and have taken steps to modify the jets so that they deploy a drag chute allowing for quick deceleration. This gives the Norwegian F-35s the capability to land on that country’s short, Arctic runways.
Similarly, the F-35’s much publicly maligned technology suite is still seen by many of the jets’ purchasers as a critical component for future air force activities. Canada’s CF-18s may be involved in air patrols and targeting unconventional forces today but the international security environment is highly fluid. There is no way of knowing what our future challenges will be. That’s why Norway sees the F-35’s improved situational awareness and low-radar visibility as a force multiplier in countering Russian activities in that country’s north. Thus, in the end, if Canada opts out of the F-35 we should at least be clear-eyed as to what the trade-offs are and what we want our air force to do. Even saving dollars comes with a cost.
Jeffrey F. Collins is a PhD Political Science student at Carleton University and co-editor of the book, Reassessing the Revolution in Military Affairs: Transformation, Evolution and Lessons Learnt (Palgrave MacMillian, 2015). (Image courtesy of Pool/Yonhap New.)