CDA and CDA Institute CEO Tony Battista and Research Manager and Senior Editor David McDonough comment on the government’s apparent interest in procuring Super Hornets as an interim measure against a perceived capability gap.
Many expect the government’s Defence Policy Review (DPR) process will conclude with a new Defence Policy early next year. But, even in the midst of these public consultations, one can detect hints at the government’s plans and priorities – from reports that the government is not planning on cutting either personnel numbers or military bases to rumours (and potential ‘leaks’) that it plans on purchasing the Super Hornet as an ‘interim measure’ before a final decision on the CF-18 fighter replacement.
These important details provide some tantalizing hints at the government’s approach to defence matters. On the issue of personnel and bases, it raises questions on how the government expects to recapitalize the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), and particularly fleet-replacement for both its navy and air force, without significantly increasing funding levels or recalibrating personnel numbers or rethinking basing infrastructure.
When it comes to the Super Hornets, one needs to ask serious questions on the extent to which there really is animminent capability gap – something seemingly refuted by the Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), Lieutenant-General Michael Hood, at a Parliamentary committee earlier this year. Of course, one should add the caveat that much depends on retaining current CF-18 modernization plans designed to keep them in the air until 2025, as well as the timeliness of the eventual fighter replacement itself. Ultimately, this raises questions on the need for Super Hornets as an interim or “bridging” solution in the first place (the number being bandied about ranging from 25 to 30, although it could well be even more), to say nothing about the broader implications of such a decision.
If only an interim measure, we’d be wasting resources to fill a purported imminent capability gap that has yet to arise – with little explanation on or rationale for why the Super Hornet was selected at this particular moment in time (especially with the F-35 finally now in or on the cusp of achieving the so-called “sweet spot” of its production run, with attendant low per unit costs). If the Super Hornets are here to stay, the RCAF would either be forced to operate a mixed fleet, or alternatively have much less leeway to select a different platform as a permanent replacement for the CF-18. Either possibility is worrisome. A mixed-fleet is an expensive proposition, as noted by the National Fighter Procurement Secretariat’s Summary Report, while the latter possibility would represent a de facto end-run of the government’s own promise to pursue an open competition for the next generation fighter aircraft.
In particular, this latest, apparent ‘leak’ about the Super Hornets – and the government for now staying rather mute about it – is rather puzzling, to say the least! Cabinet decisions do not usually leak out that easily, especially not ones that involve lots of money. So, one might be led to speculate it is a ‘leak’ from somewhere at the top (government) to test the waters. If so, it would seem that a pattern is emerging here, whereby important decisions might be shaped and coming out ahead of the DPR and expected new Defence Policy, through statements and announcements (inadvertently or deliberately), rather than through the systematic, consultative, and open process that the government announced earlier this year.
It is certainly curious that such details emerged in the middle of a public consultation process. One hopes such decisions would only be made upon the completion of these consultations when the actual DPR is being formulated. (Parenthetically, it will be interesting to observe what other ‘hints’ might come out in the coming weeks when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is going to the NATO summit in July and likely to make ‘announcements,’ and when he goes to the UN General Assembly in early fall and is expected to make more announcements about “peacekeeping.”)
Of note, the government has been insisting (even before it took power) that it knows how to “govern in a way that is inclusive, transparent, respectful and effective” and to rely on “evidence-based decision-making.” While there may be nothing wrong with the government making quick decisions to equip the Canadian Armed Forces with necessary capabilities, the fact of the matter is that it has promised to be “inclusive, transparent, respectful and effective” and to be in favour of “evidence-based decision-making.”
And the manner by which the Super Hornet interim option has leaked in the midst of public consultations about the DPR, and the extent to which claims about a purported capability gap seemingly contradicts the view of the military leadership, raise questions on whether the government is truly fulfilling its promises here. Canadians, including our extensive list of stakeholders (close to half a million people) and hopefully the Office of the Auditor General, should take note.
Just to be clear, the CDA and CDA Institute do not take positions on specific platforms, like the Super Hornet or the F-35; rather, both organizations focus predominantly on Policy issues, on the Profession of Arms and strategic-level considerations, such as capabilities and mission requirements. The CDA does so through balanced and informed advocacy, while the CDA Institute offers a multitude of distinct voices as part of its educational and awareness emphasis on policy research and informing the public.
Still, it is important to underline that this government has been clear on the need to have transparency, fairness, diligence, and due process in defence procurement decisions, which will shape what the CAF can do for decades into the future. These decisions come with particular responsibility not only from the current government’s mandate, which given its majority electoral win is undoubtedly strong, but also by determining what military tools are available for future governments, irrespective of which political stripe. As such, rather than focusing too narrowly on parochial, electoral or even ‘politicized’ service-specific concerns, the government needs to place the national interest in the heart of its plans for recapitalization – and that the decision on such issues as the fighter aircraft replacement, personnel levels, or basing infrastructure are done in accordance to such broader strategic (and indeed stately) perspective.
Specifically, a next generation fighter capability is required by Canada as part of its overall package to maintain sovereign control over its vast territory – including the Arctic, and its credible share of the defence of the North American continent. Given how successive governments – of both Liberal and Conservative stripes – have opted to contribute fighter aircraft for international military operations, such as over Kosovo in 1999 and more recently in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, Canada also needs a capability that can be used in expeditionary operations abroad, whether in coalitions of the willing or with our traditional Alliance partners. Thus, the need for such a capability should not be in question.
In addition, the government decision to maintain such a capability must also be taken with a number of key considerations in mind, such as overall cost (per unit and operating), interoperability with our major allies (especially theUS Air Force), and capacity to operate in a variety of different threat environments, which may change and evolve (becoming either more benign or perhaps contested) over coming decades. Irrespective of whether the Super Hornet, the F-35, or an altogether different aircraft (e.g., Eurofighter) is ultimately chosen, these considerations need to be foremost in the minds of decision-makers.
Tony Battista is Chief Executive Officer of the Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) and the CDA Institute.David McDonough is the Research Manager and Senior Editor at the CDA Institute.