CASR | Modest Proposal |
Background | Government
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CASR – Canadian American Strategic Review
– A Modest Proposal
New Fighter Aircraft – CF-18 Replacement – F-35 Alternatives – April 2012
Northern Growler: Super Hornet Alternatives to an Early F-35 Buy –
or – on the
Benefits of Delayed Procurements and Interim Solutions
A Modest Proposal by Stephen Daly, CD
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 contro- versy, 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 replace- ment 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
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
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,  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.
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 on offer 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
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 obsfucated
unit prices ?
 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.
CASR | Modest Proposal |
Background | Government
Documents | In