The Buzz

Is Canada Getting Ready to Buy Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet?

Canada is considering the purchase of 18 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet strike fighters as a stopgap measure while it begins the search for a new aircraft to replace its increasingly decrepit CF-18 fleet.

America’s northern neighbor and closest ally currently operates 77 Boeing CF-18s—down from 138 jets at its peak—which were originally slated to be replaced by the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). However, Ottawa’s F-35 purchase—which was finalized under the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper—because mired in controversy over cost and technical issues. The new Liberal government—led by Justin Trudeau—is hoping to avoid a similar debacle by kicking the can down the road with an interim partial CF-18 replacement while it holds a competition for a new jet.

“Today, the Government of Canada has announced that it will launch, within its current mandate, an open and transparent competition to replace the legacy fleet of CF-18 fighter aircraft. This competition will ensure that the Government gets the right aircraft for our women and men in uniform – at the right price – while maximizing economic benefits to Canadians,” reads a Canadian government statement. “In addition, Canada will immediately explore the acquisition of 18 new Super Hornet aircraft to supplement the CF-18s until the permanent replacement arrives.”

Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said that Canada urgently needs new aircraft—hence the need for an interim fighter purchase. “Every government has to decide the level of risk they are willing to accept to Canada, and our women and men in uniform. Having to manage our commitments to NORAD, NATO, and our ability to respond to unforeseen events is not a risk this government is willing to accept,” Sajjan said. “The interim fleet provides the most effective way forward to help ensure Canada remains a credible and dependable ally.”

The Canadian government seems to be hoping for some sort of leasing agreement for its prospective interim Boeing F/A-18E/F fleet. “The Government will enter into discussions with the U.S. Government and Boeing regarding use of these jets for an interim period of time,” the Canadian government statement reads. “Before proceeding, the Government reserves the right to decide if they can provide the interim fleet at a cost, time, level of capability, and economic value that is acceptable to Canada."

Meanwhile, Ottawa is continuing its search for a new jet. Over the past year, Canada has worked with the defense industry and allied governments—such as the United States—to obtain the most up-to-date information on timelines, current capabilities, costs and economic benefits associated with buying a new jet. Additionally, Canada will continue its participation in the F-35 program until it awards a contract award for a permanent new fleet of jets. “This will allow Canada to maximize benefits of the partnership and gives Canada the option to buy the aircraft through the program, should the F-35 be successful in the competitive process for the permanent fleet,” reads the Canadian government statement.

While the Canadian announcement is a minor setback for Lockheed Martin, it will be a boon for Boeing and the U.S. Navy as they struggle to extend the Super Hornet production run. Meanwhile, the loss is not an insurmountable problem for Lockheed Martin or the JSF program. Indeed, there is every possibility—once the F-35 is genuinely operational and in fully rate production—that it could eventually win the contract to become the permanent replacement for the CF-18.

Ultimately, Canada will pick the best aircraft for its needs.  “History and a future fraught with risk demands that the Canadian Armed Forces be ready and capable to respond to threats to Canada and North America, and support our allies and those in need,” said Gen. Jonathan Vance, Chief of the Defense Staff. “Our women and men in uniform are the guarantors of Canadian sovereignty, and protectors of Canadian values and interests abroad. I am delighted that our women and men in the RCAF are embarking on a journey that assures our defense for the long-term.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.