Northern Growler: Super Hornet Alternatives to an Early F-35 Buy

Originally Published on Canadian American Strategic Review: April 2012

Update Nov 2012: Anticipating an upcoming KPMG review of F-35 costs (prompted by the Auditor-General ), PWGSC Minister, Rona Ambrose, announced that the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat will examine all fighter options (including the Super Hornets).  In Aug 2012, Australia announced it will proceed with a planned purchase of electronic suites to convert the RAAF’s 12 pre-wired F/A-18Fs into F/A-18G Growlers at a cost of  $1.5B.

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.

One method is to extend the life of the current aircraft while waiting for the chosen replacement to be ready. The CF-18 has been undergoing a phased upgrade process for a number of years, the CF-18 Incremental Modernization Program, but airframe lives are finite. And the cost of further life extension should be factored against the acquisition cost of an eventual replacement. But artificial raising of costs is the last thing the troubled F-35 program needs.

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 Boeing Super Hornet family are closely related to Canada’s CF-18A and CF-18B Hornet, the F/A-18E and F/A-18F being more advanced developments of those single-seat and two- seat CF-18s.  Like all  the other potential competitors for Canada’s next fighter aircraft, Super Hornets are more than capable of  meeting the demands of the NORAD air defence mission. Where the Super Hornet is weaker than the F-35 is in its contribution to expeditionary roles. Super Hornet is capable today  but, without the F-35’s much-vaunted stealth, will the Super Hornet be survivable above the battlefields of  tomorrow? The answer to the expeditionary role lies in a highly-specialized relative of the Super Hornet,  the two-seat  EA-18G Growler.

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 would acquire 65 new Super Hornets in a mix of  F/A-18E single-seat fighters for the domestic air defence role and  F/A-18F two-seaters  for fighter training. In addition, Canada would also acquire 15-to-20  EA-18G Growlers  for expeditionary use. Following Australia’s lead, [1]  Canada would  have our two-seat  ‘CF-18Fs’  built pre-wired for easy conversion to EA-18G standards. This is to mitigate against any possible losses by the expeditionary unit.

RCAF Growler. Image courtesy of Stephen Priestley/CASR


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).

The Super Hornet family is one of the least expensive fighter options available to Canada. The degree of commonality between the Super Hornet and ‘legacy’ CF-18s also serves to reduce costs of spares, support equipment, and training. A Super Hornet purchase would also bring with it the Industrial Regional Benefits (IRB) that go with any military acquisition.

So, what of Canada’s existing  (if troubled)  procurement project to sole-source F-35s?

Purchasing an interim capability like the Super Hornet does not dictate abandoning the F-35 program altogether. Canada would merely be buying time. At the beginning of  production, any new military aircraft will face problems and the F-35 is no exception. Instead of acquiring an unproven aircraft, Canada would  be delaying its requirement  until  the end of  F-35 peak production. Canada then has the option of  purchasing F-35s or, after clinical assessment of our then-current needs and threats, examining newly-emerged fighter aircraft developments.

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 ?

[1] 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.


15 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. I now write to let the thoughts in my head get out where I can see 'em. :)

Posted in Acquisitions, Canadian American Strategic Review, Canadian Forces, CASR, Modest Proposal, RCAF
2 comments on “Northern Growler: Super Hornet Alternatives to an Early F-35 Buy
  1. Ken Bouvier says:

    I agree with your statements go with the super hornet with growlers like australia . It would be earlier deliveries because of dwindling orders , the commonality having the legacy CF-18 upgraded to F-18 C standards before purchasing the Super Hornet a natural progression . Less supporting equipment to buy less time in retraining personnel .The experience being a lead export country of the original F-18 program the teething problems signifys product loyalty The commonality with the U.S Navy and RAAF a no brainer force multiplier when things get tough. IF THE F-35 goes awry like it is there always the Canadian and Australian to press the U.S. to reopen the F-22 Raptor production lines because the Raptor has finally matured.


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Canadian ~ American Strategic Review

CASR has announced that it will cease operations on 31/December/2016.

I have grateful to have been given the opportunity to write for them, and to repost my material on Defence Muse.

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