By: Matt Gurney, National Post
The Liberal government is planning to procure a few American-made Boeing F-18 Super Hornet fighter jets on an “interim” basis, to shore up Canada’s current fleet of aging jets. The Super Hornets are an advanced jet, operated in large numbers by the U.S. Navy. The very capable aircraft are larger, more modern version of the CF-18 jets already operated by Canada’s air force. They would make a fine plane for Canadian pilots.
But the process the Liberals seem set to embark on raises many questions. In trying to sidestep one problem, they may entrap themselves in others.
During last year’s federal election campaign, the Liberals pledged to scrap Conservative plans to buy the F-35 fighter jet, even though Canada has long participated in developing the jet in expectation of future industrial spinoffs. They also promised to hold an “open” competition before choosing an alternative. But open competitions take time and the results can’t be predicted. Time isn’t something the government enjoys: The CF-18 jets in use are dwindling in number and may have 10 years or less of reliable service.
It’s easy to see the appeal for the Liberals in procuring Super Hornets. They can honour their promise in spirit, if not in letter — they would procure jets that aren’t F-35s, while keeping the door open, at least in theory, for F-35s later. That would allow Canada to remain a part of the program while purchasing “interim” Super Hornets. This would help meeting growing operational gaps caused by the fact Canada’s fighter fleet is far too small to reliably meet our domestic patrol obligations and international commitments. It might also make it easier for the government to officially decide, at some later date, against the F-35. Since we already have all these Super Hornets, after all …
Liberals planning to buy Super Hornet fighter jets before making final decision on F-35s, sources say
But this poses obvious problems. If Canada is to buy new jets, we need to buy enough of them, and quickly enough, to make a real difference. We will have to invest heavily in infrastructure and training and simulators. Super Hornets evolved from the same F-18 jet that Canada first bought in the 1980s, but they are, in many ways, very different aircraft and would involve significant expense. Even as an interim solution, the air force would need enough of them to be able to actually deploy in strength.
How many would that mean? Australia, for instance, spent $2.5 billion on two dozen Super Hornets, as an interim measure until its F-35s could arrive. Canada is a larger country, with more sky to patrol, plus, thanks to membership in NORAD and NATO, greater international obligations. It would be difficult to buy enough jets to fill even an “interim” role without having to buy so many it would be transparently obvious that the “interim” claim was a fiction. The CF-18 fleet is down to only 80 jets. If Ottawa bought 40 Super Hornets as an “interim” measure, would anyone believe the next 40 (or so) would be anything else?
There’s another risk, one that anyone who has observed Canada’s troubled history of procurements is keenly aware of. When the Liberals took office in 1993 and cancelled a Conservative order for replacement helicopters, under circumstances similar to the F-35 debate, they paid $478 million in penalties and set off a 20-year delay in finding a replacement helicopter. Canadian pilots are still waiting. There is also the possibility a cash-strapped government will later cancel additional purchases, leaving the “interim” jets as the permanent replacement for an air force that will shrink, again, leaving Canada less able to patrol its own skies and help allies overseas.
Giving the military the tools its needs to do its job properly shouldn’t be secondary to honouring ill-thought campaign promises. If the air force needs interim jets, fine. Procure them. But this must not be a way for Liberals to dodge making a final decision. Canada needs a new fleet of jets, and in large numbers. Delay, by any other name, won’t help.