The Liberal government is embarking on a complex and expensive path to replace its CF-18 fighter jets, starting with a plan to spend more than $10-billion to fly a small "interim fleet" of 18 Boeing Super Hornets throughout the 2020s.
The move allows the government to delay a final decision on the acquisition of a full fleet of new fighter jets until 2022, well after the next election. At that point, the government will be able to stick with the Super Hornet or buy the more modern Lockheed-Martin F-35 stealth. The full fleet will be purchased after an open competition, with the fleet of aircraft to be "fully operational" by the late 2020s.
Three Liberal ministers and the Chief of the Defence Staff announced the strategy on Tuesday, fulfilling the Liberal Party's campaign promise not to buy the politically controversial F-35 and to select the next fleet in a competition.
Still, during the competitive process, Canada will remain a member of the Joint Strike Fighter program, which is developing the F-35 and overseeing the hiring of Canadian firms to work on the production line.
The government's plan received mixed reviews, with a former chief of the air staff calling it "clever politically," while adding it will needlessly disrupt the operations of the Royal Canadian Air Force for years.
"I know the turmoil this is going to cause to go through the transition for only this small number of airplanes, and the fact it is going to have to be repeated," retired lieutenant-general Ken Pennie said.
Still, the head of the Canadian Armed Forces called Tuesday a "great day," stating the acquisition of an interim fleet will allow the military to fulfill its international commitments.
"It's unequivocal that we can't meet our NORAD and NATO obligations concurrently, or simultaneously, let alone have the flexibility to do anything else," General Jonathan Vance said.
Describing what is currently being sacrificed, he added: "It's deterrence, it's the defence of Canada, it's the ability to respond to another 9/11 type incident, it's the ability to respond to the unforeseen."
The Liberals promised in the last election to find a more cost-effective plan to replace the CF-18s than that of the previous Conservative government. However, Public Works Minister Judy Foote and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan refused to put a price on their plans to buy an interim fleet of Super Hornets, saying they need to speak to Boeing and the U.S. government before disclosing their financial projections.
The final life-cycle cost for the interim fleet is expected to be less than the $16-billion the previous government set aside for the acquisition and use of a new fleet of F-35s. Still, the final tally to buy and fly the Super Hornets for about a decade is expected to come in at more than $10-billion, sources said.
The government said it picked the Super Hornet for the interim fleet because it is a U.S.-built aircraft that is compatible with the U.S. fighters that defend North American airspace as part of NORAD. In addition, the Super Hornet is already in use, while the F-35 is in development, although the U.S. armed forces have declared it to be ready.
A senior government official said the goal of the Canadian Forces with the Super Hornets will be to "fly them hard for 10 years," stating the CF-18s will yield to the new fighter jets on many missions.
The government is vowing to find a way to level the playing field in the open competition for the full fleet when submissions are rated and weighted. This will entail removing any advantage Boeing derives from the fact the Super Hornets will already be flying with the RCAF, including lower costs to train staff.
"We're not stacking the deck in favour of Boeing any more than we are in favour of Lockheed Martin by staying in the [Joint Strike Fighter] program," Ms. Foote told reporters.
Lockheed-Martin said in a statement that the F-35 remains the best long-term choice for the Canadian Forces.
"Although disappointed with this decision, we remain confident the F-35 is the best solution to meet Canada's operational requirements at the most affordable price. … The F-35 is combat ready and available today to meet Canada's needs for the next 40 years," Lockheed-Martin said.
Boeing, on the other hand, said it looked forward to seeing the Super Hornet entering the RCAF.
"Boeing is honored to provide the Royal Canadian Air Force with the only multi-role fighter aircraft that can fulfill its immediate needs for sovereign and North American defense," the firm said in a statement.