Originally Published on Canadian American Strategic Review: April 2012
Canada’s proposed single-source purchase of the F-35 stealth fighter is shrouded in controversy, delayed by development setbacks and beset with rising costs. The lifespan of the in-service CF-18 also imposes critical time constraints on replacement, fighter aircraft simply don’t last forever. Already the Hornet has seen 3 decades of service and, even if a contract for a replacement is signed tomorrow, will see at least half a decade more before retirement.
What Canada needs, as much as it needs a new fighter aircraft, is time. Time to let the fighter development stage settle (in the case of the F-35A), time to soberly judge long-term threats and trends, and time to let the dust of the current political battle over future fighters fade.
How does an Air Force buy time? It’s either Delayed Gratification or Interim Solutions.
Another way to buy time is to buy an interim replacement. Seek out an aircraft that will serve until the point where mid-life updates would normally be carried out – say 10-15 years. With an established aircraft type, well-known life-cycle costs, and pre-determined service life, it is possible to tightly manage program costs. If we pursue that route, any interim solution must also maintain the Canadian contribution to NATO and other allied expeditionary operations.
Dividing roles amongst a family instead of spending our inheritance on an Über-fighter
The Growler is the ‘Electronic Attack ‘ variant of the Super Hornet family. Growler operates in a way that is diametrically opposed to stealth aircraft like the F-35. Rather than hide from a threat radar, the Growler hunts them. Equipped with sophisticated jamming equipment and armed with ‘anti-radiation’ missiles for attacking ground-based radar, the Growlers carry out their Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) missions. Growler flies its SEAD missions either in the traditional stand-off jamming role or as a close escort – protecting other strike aircraft. This Electronic Attack capability is in short supply within NATO and added SEAD capability from Canada would be more welcomed by the Alliance than extra strike aircraft.
So, how would this interim purchase work? Mixed types = More fighters for less money
Canada should also look closely at the ‘Super Hornet International Roadmap’ on offer from Boeing. No nation has opted-in to this program as yet and Canada could easily leverage any Super Hornet procurement to local industrial involvement in the attendant developments of conformal fuel tanks, stealth weapons pods and advanced avionics (such as sensor fusion).
So, what of Canada’s existing (if troubled) procurement project to sole-source F-35s?
In the meantime, Canada will have highly-capable fighter aircraft, in the form of the F/A-18E and ‘F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growler, with less cost and at lower risk. Shorter fighter aircraft service lives will allow more realistic planning, less investment in In-Service Support programs, and lower up-front costs. Drawn-out mid-life programs are avoided in the future. And Canadian taxpayers will face a procurement decision that average citizens can actually understand. In these times of fiscal restraint and Government-wide budget cuts, doesn’t that sound better than overwrought, emotional arguments clouded with obfuscated unit prices ?
 Australia bought 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets for the RAAF in May 2007. This was not an alternative to F-35s but as an F-111 replacement. However, Australia’s Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, has hinted that more F/A-18s may be purchased with resulting scaling-back of Australia’s involvement in the F-35 program. The 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets serve RAAF No.s 1 and 6 Squadrons, including the six F/A-18Fs which can be reconfigured as Growlers.