The Buzz

Are Canada's New F/A-18E Super Hornets Already Obsolete?

The Liberal Government of Canada has announced that it intends to swiftly sole-source 18 F/A-18E Super Hornets to fill a perceived capability gap. The need flows from Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan’s views of existing treaty obligations under NORAD and NATO. The Royal Canadian Air Force, however, has stated that its 77 existing CF-18s will last at least to 2025, even if the loss rate for the type has increased of late. Whoever is correct, and however the government proceeds in replacing the fighter fleet, missile threats to North America are rising. The incoming Trump administration in Washington will bring heightened expectations for what NORAD and NATO really mean. Thus, the Department of National Defence must find new planes that are at least upgradeable for directly addressing these emerging threats.

It is difficult to predict how the Trump Administration will remake the US military, beyond obvious first steps like restoring funding cuts from sequestration. However, self-evident existential threats like North Korea's nuclear ballistic missiles will be a priority. The specifics of new requirements will not be clear before the new administration settles in and possibly renegotiates the NORAD Agreement and other treaties. It is otherwise likely to closely follow existing policy, set by recent commanders Admiral Bill Gortney and General Lori Robinson. All the same, the president-elect has committed to a comprehensive overhaul of foreign and defense policy, and with it, expanded and different expectations for contributions from allies like Canada. All Five-Eyes allies except Canada have revamped and increased defense and security spending recently. Canada may need to do more once the new administration takes office.

Meeting NORAD's requirements by 2020 is not about having an adequate fighter to patrol the Arctic. Rather, it is about having a software-upgradeable network appliance that can seamlessly and smoothly evolve and adapt to emerging needs, including presently unforeseen or vaguely defined ones. Sea based anti-ballistic missile capabilities, cooperative engagement capability, tight integration of air and sea based systems, and upgrades as required will all be essential. Even six months ago, surface combatants and jet fighters defending North American cities like Toronto and Montreal against North Korean missile attacks seemed far-fetched. But soon, platforms that cannot support this capability and that are not upgradeable will be severely handicapped. They will likely become prematurely obsolete by 2020 when the first F/A-18 Super Hornets are delivered.