Canada Needs New Aircraft, Could The F-35 Fit The Bill?
As part of its commitment to NATO, Canada also must be prepared for high-tech warfare in Europe.
Key point: Canada, like Switzerland, likely can’t afford to fail again to buy new planes.
Canada for the third time in a decade is trying to replace its aging F/A-18A/B Hornet fighter jets. With every year the acquisition effort drags on, the condition of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s fast-jet fleet grows direr.
“The politically-charged competition to replace Canada's aging fleet of fighter jets will rocket forward at the end of May  as the federal government releases a long-anticipated, full-fledged tender call,” Murray Brewster reported for CBC News.
Four companies are vying for the multibillion-dollar contract for as many as 88 fighters that would replace the RCAF’s 1980s-vintage Hornets, which in Canadian service are designated “CF-18.”
Saab, Airbus, Boeing and Lockheed Martin all are in the running, respectively offering the Gripen, Eurofighter, F/A-18E/F and F-35A. The manufacturers will have until the end of 2019 to submit bids, CBC News reported. But the RCAF hardly can wait.
The RCAF acquired 138 F/A-18A/Bs from McDonnell Douglas starting in 1982. In early 2019, 85 of the original Hornets, all more than 30 years old, comprise Canada's entire fighter fleet. The Canadian Hornets are unreliable and lack modern systems.
In 2010, Canada's Conservative Party government announced plans to acquire 65 new F-35 stealth fighters by 2020. But the government never fairly compared the F-35 to rival fighter types such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Auditor General of Canada concluded in a 2018 report. "National Defense did not manage the process to replace the CF-18 fleet with due diligence."
In 2015, Liberal Party candidate Justin Trudeau made the F-35 a major issue in his campaign for prime minister. Trudeau won. And in 2017, Ottawa backed off its proposal to purchase F-35s and, instead, launched a new competition to acquire 88 fighters.
The aircraft would enter service in 2032, meaning the old Hornets would have to continue flying 12 years longer than the government originally planned. Ottawa briefly considered acquiring 18 F/A-18E/Fs from Boeing in order to bolster the early-model Hornets, but the government canceled the plan during a U.S.-Canada trade dispute in 2017.
Canada was left with its original Hornets. In December 2017, the government announced it would spend around $500 million buying up to 25 1980s-vintage F/A-18s that Australia was declared surplus as it acquired its own fleet of new F-35s.
The RCAF would add some of the Australian Hornets to the operational fleet and use others as sources of spare parts.
But the government has no plan to keep its Hornets combat-ready as they enter their fourth and even fifth decade of service." We found that the CF-18 had not been significantly upgraded for combat since 2008, in part because [the Department of] National Defense expected a replacement fleet to be in place by 2020," the government auditors found.
"Without these upgrades, according to the department, the CF-18 will become more vulnerable as advanced combat aircraft and air-defense systems continue to be developed and used by other nations."
Against this backdrop, Brewster assessed the current fighter contenders, in particular, the Swedish Gripen and the American F-35. “There has been a rigorous political and academic debate about whether Canada should choose a legacy design from the 1990s, such as the Gripen, or the recently-introduced Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter,” Brewster wrote.
“The Swedish air force is about the same size as the Royal Canadian Air Force,” Brewster pointed out, adding that Sweden and Canada also share geographic concerns.
“The Gripen is intended for operations in rugged environments, such as Sweden's Arctic region,” Brewster wrote. “Canada's CF-18s occasionally operate from forward bases in the north, but those deployments are infrequent compared with the routine activity of the Swedes.”
As part of its commitment to NATO, Canada also must be prepared for high-tech warfare in Europe. The Gripen lacks the radar-evading stealth features that in theory allow the F-35 to penetrate the most dangerous Russian-made air-defenses.
But Brewster cited a March 2019 Swedish study that claimed Russian defenses are less fearsome than many observers believe.
“Besides uncritically taking Russian data at face value, the three cardinal sins have been: confusing the maximal nominal range of missiles with the effective range of the systems; disregarding the inherent problems of seeing and hitting a moving target at a distance, especially targets below the horizon; and underestimating the potential for countermeasures against [anti-access area-denial]-systems,” Robert Dalsjo, Christopher Berglund and Michael Jonsson explain in their report "Bursting the Bubble."
The stakes are high. If Canada fails a third time to buy a new fighter, it might find itself in the same unfortunate situation in which Switzerland has found itself.
In April 2019 the Swiss air force is down to just 10 ready fighters with full-time pilots. The crisis is the result of the Swiss public's decision in a 2014 referendum to reject the air force's proposal to buy 22 new fighters to begin replacing 40-year-old F-5 Tigers.
The Swiss air force in 2019 plans to remove from service 27 Tigers. The 26 Tigers that remain will perform limited duties.
With the F-5 force shrinking and flying part-time, the Swiss air force increasingly relies on its 30 F/A-18C/Ds. To last that long, the F/A-18s need structural upgrades. The upgrade work has sidelined more than half of the Hornet fleet.
Switzerland like Canada has relaunched its fighter competition. The same companies and designs that are competing in Canada, plus Dassault with the Rafale, are in the running in Switzerland. Intensive flight testing began in April 2019.
Canada like Switzerland likely can’t afford to fail again to buy new planes. The old Canadian Hornets probably won’t last much longer. "The CF-18 will be disadvantaged against many potential adversaries, and its combat capability will further erode through the 2020s and into the 2030s," Ottawa’s auditors warned.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. (This first appeared last year.)