Could Canada’s convoluted procurement process leave RCAF without operable fighters?

Justin Trudeau reversed his political fortunes in 2012 with a televised charity boxing match. (Reuters: Chris Wattie)

In 2012, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau climbed into a boxing ring in Ottawa for what was ostensibly a televised charity match, but was really a fight for his political future. 

Critics had taken to calling him everything from “the Paris Hilton of Canadian politics” to a “reed-thin, pedigreed dauphin” to the “shiny pony”.

Justin Trudeau has secured a third election victory, but his decision to call a snap election was criticized by political opponents – and even allies – after Mr Trudeau failed once again to win a parliamentary majority.

Could this be the time Prime Minister Trudeau make a decision about long waited fighter jet deal?

The Canadian government is budgeting between C$15 billion and C$19 billion to acquire 88 jets, train personnel to fly and sustain the aircraft — the true lifetime cost will almost certainly be significantly higher.

The competition pits Lockheed Martin’s jet, believed still to be the favored choice of the Canadian air force; against Boeing’s F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet, the next generation of Canada’s existing fleet; and the Saab Gripen, the underdog in the competition.

Ottawa expects the first jets to arrive, no matter who supplies them, by 2025. Upgrades are planned for an air force base in Cold Lake, Alb., to house the jets. The Canadian military will need to have the fleet fully operational by 2032 when Canada’s existing fleet of CF-18s — some of which it acquired in the 1980s and others it leased from Australia in recent years — is slated to go offline.

A major selling point of any sizable military procurement project is that it will have lucrative knock-on effects for local industry.

Boeing has promised C$61 billion in economic benefit for Canada, should it pick the Super Hornet, creating — they say — 250,000 jobs. The aerospace company has partnered with a host of Canadian companies prepared to help build and maintain the jets.

Saab doesn’t have the same aerospace footprint in North America as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which is why it’s pitching to stand up two new “aerospace centres” around Montreal to help produce the jets.

The Super Hornet’s AESA radar and long-range Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor, integrated into the centerline external tank’s nose, provide a formidable sensing and data sharing capability when combined with the Block III’s Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N) computer system.

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With its long-range Infrared Search and Track (IRST) and network-enabled targeting capability, the Block III Super Hornet is able to track and target adversary aircraft without active radar technology. It is possible for stealth fighters to be targeted at long range, outside of Active Electronically Scanned Array, or AESA, radar ranges using active-sensor technology. Radar stealth was sufficient to increase survivability when going against older IADS; the Block III Super Hornet can effectively defeat enemy IADS, both old and new, using a combination of the right amount of stealth, advanced next-generation electronic warfare, networked sensors and targeting, as well as advanced weapons.

Brazil and Sweden adopted Gripen E/F as the 4.5 generation aircraft. Brazil has been receiving technology from Saab Group. Equipped with Raven AESA radar, modern avionics and missiles, Gripen makes a powerful platform for the next 30 years.

The F-35 remains popular with other NATO countries — the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, and a host of others have opted for the Lockheed Martin jet. Neutral Switzerland just passed over the F/A-18 in favor of the F-35 to replace its ageing fleet.

Data from the U.S. Government shows that the F-35 and Super Hornet’s operational flight cost among current U.S.-built fighters at $40,000 and $18,000 per flight hour respectively. On the contrary, Gripen has the lowest operational flight cost at just $4,000 per hour.

Justin Trudeau promised to find the Royal Canadian Air Force a more affordable fighter jet than Lockheed Martin’s F-35. If elected, he pledged to scrap the deal and open a new competitive process to find a next-generation plane for the Canadian military. But not the F-35, Mr Trudeau swore.

With the view of recent political decisions in Australia regarding the Royal Australian Navy’s submarine, it’s implausible that Swedish Gripen has any chance in Canada.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s opposition to F-35 makes it harder for Lockheed Martin to make a quick political decision in favor of the F-35, but the RCAF still believes F-35 is the best jet for the next 30 years.

Boeing’s CF-18 already integrated into NORAD –Boeing offered more than $61 billion in industrial benefits to Canada –Super Hornet Block III with its fifth-generation sensors and AESA radar could be a low-cost option for Royal Canadian Air Force.  

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