By: Matthew Fisher, The National Post
If the Liberal government goes ahead with its decision to purchase Super Hornet fighter jets instead of stealthy F-35s, Canada may be giving up its sovereignty over the High Arctic as it comes to depend on U.S. jets flying from airfields in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit and Alaska.
That was the unanimous opinion of half a dozen retired fighter pilots I spoke with recently, pilots with decades of experience flying over the continent’s northern margins and in senior positions at NORAD headquarters in Colorado: that Canada would be relegated to “second-tier status” in defending its own territory.
U.S. war planes such as the F-35 and F-22 would defend the bulk of Canada’s vast northern air space because they would be invisible to Russian radars and would be able to seamlessly share data and sensor information with each other and with airborne and ground command posts, the retired Canadian pilots said. Canada’s CF-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, operating much older technologies and much less able to deliver such complicated data fusion, would likely be tasked with defending North American cities far to the south or with shooting down any missiles that managed to penetrate the first line of defence, they said.
The 18 Super Hornets the Trudeau government has said it intends to buy are expected to cost between $5 and $7 billion. On Tuesday, the Canadian government sent a letter to its U.S. counterpart outlining what it’s looking for in a potential Super Hornet purchase, which the jets’ manufacturer, Boeing, will use to draft a formal proposal by this fall. If the price and timeline are right — and if the purchase would provide enough economic spinoff benefits for Canada — the Liberals hope to sign a contract by late this year or early next. The plan has drawn plenty of criticism.
“Will Canada be surrendering sovereignty? The simple answer is yes,” said Lt.-Gen. George MacDonald, who flew CF-18 Hornets from Bagotville, Que., for NORAD for five years and was the binational military alliance’s deputy commander before 9/11 and then served as vice chief of the defence staff in Ottawa before retiring in 2004. (He now works for CFN Consultants, which has as a client Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35.)
“The Russians would be delighted to see Canada flying Super Hornets in the north,” said Gen. Tom Lawson, the retired former chief of the defence staff and ex-deputy commander of NORAD, who sometimes works as a consultant for Lockheed. “The Super Hornets will be a big, bright object on the radars of Russian early-warning aircraft. With the F-35, the Russians will not see them until they are too close.”
Gen. Jean Boyle, a former chief of defence and fighter pilot who was Boeing’s vice-president of international business when the Super Hornet was coming online nearly 20 years ago, says he can see the argument against using Super Hornets in the Far North. “In times of increased tension there is no doubt that NORAD would put its best assets, the (U.S. Air Force’s) F-35 and F-22, forward instead of a Super Hornet, to ensure the defence is thorough.
“My position, even when I was chief and ever since I was a colonel and started to understand national security, is that Canada should have a defence capability where we can defend all the northern and maritime approaches to our country, 100 per cent, that it is fully paid for by us and that there are no arguments on that point.”
“I am loathe to say we should buy the F-35 but skeptical about the capabilities of the Super Hornet,” Boyle said. “Having been with Boeing when it was developed, I am relatively aware of what the Super Hornet can do. It is fourth-generation compared to fifth-generation.”
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A fourth retired Canadian air force general, who had not worked for either Lockheed or Boeing but whose company does not allow employees to be quoted by name, concurred. He highlighted “survivability issues” for Super Hornet crews because they could be seen by enemy radars, and warned that new Russian cruise missiles would be “a game-changer” if not confronted by a fighter with cutting-edge technology.
None of the former pilots interviewed for this article were among the 13 retired air force three-star generals who recently sent a letter to the prime minister decrying the Super Hornet purchase.
“I don’t know what the government’s calculus is but if they look to the threats in the future we should go to a competition quickly,” Lawson said. “Enough information is already available to develop an operational requirement to have a competition within one year to 18 months and to have the first aircraft delivered within three years.”
That is approximately the same timeline the government has been using to justify the need for an emergency purchase of Super Hornets rather than F-35s. The RCAF told parliamentarians last year that it can safely fly its existing CF-18s until 2025.
The F-35 and Super Hornet were both “tremendous airplanes,” Boyle said. “My position is to not buy from an interim proposal. We should move forward with an open competition. Put them up against each other and make a decision.”