OTTAWA — The Liberal government is intent on buying Super Hornet fighter jets, according to multiple sources.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet reportedly discussed the issue last week, and while no formal decision was taken, one top-level official said: “They have made up their minds and are working on the right narrative to support it.”
Rather than a full replacement of the air force’s aging CF-18 fighter fleet, it’s believed the purchase will be labelled an interim measure to fill what Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has warned is a pending “gap” in Canada’s military capabilities.
The Liberals promised during the election campaign not to buy the F-35 to replace the CF-18s. But the government has been struggling with how to fulfil that promise for fear any attempt to exclude the stealth fighter from a competition will result in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit, according to one senior Defence Department official.
“The current fleet size makes it difficult to do everything NORAD and NATO require”
There is precedent for purchasing Super Hornets on an interim basis; Australia bought 24 of the aircraft about five years ago for $2.5 billion, to replace that country’s antiquated F-111 jets until newer F-35s were ready.
Sajjan, who recently visited Australia, warned last month that Canada’s CF-18s “need to be replaced now. And the fact they have not been replaced means we are facing a capability gap in the years ahead.” He indicated the government planned to move quickly.
An official in Sajjan’s office reiterated that sense of urgency on Saturday, saying the Royal Canadian Air Force has been “risk-managing” its fighter jet fleet.
“The government is working very hard on this file as it must because today the Canadian Armed Forces are risk-managing a gap between our NATO and NORAD obligations, and the number of planes we can put in the air on any given day,” the official said.
“That capability gap is expected to grow in the years ahead, and that’s an unacceptable situation.”
The official added that the issue is a “very high priority for the government to chart a way forward in the very near future.”
Liberal suggestions that Canada’s CF-18s are on their last legs appear to have come out of nowhere, after the previous Conservative government announced in 2014 that it was upgrading the CF-18s so they could continue to operate through 2025. That $400-million initiative was intended to buy the government time to make the right decision on a replacement.
Defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute noted Canada originally bought 138 CF-18s, and is now down to fewer than 80 — all of which are aging.
“The current fleet size makes it difficult to do everything NORAD and NATO require,” he said.
But Perry noted that has been the case for years, including under the Conservatives.
“This government seems to find the situation a lot more problematic than the last one did,” he said.
Suggesting there is an urgent need to replace the CF-18s, and then describing any purchase of Super Hornets as an interim measure could be one way for the Liberals to make good on its promise not to buy the F-35, without sparking a costly legal battle. The government could maintain that it still plans to hold a full competition to replace the CF-18s at a later, undetermined date.
There have long been suspicions that the Liberals have wanted to buy the Super Hornet. Aside from ruling out the F-35 during the election, officials have indicated that Canada all but has to buy an American-built plane, given the importance of joint continental defence with the U.S.
That leaves the Super Hornet as the only alternative, given that the F-35’s other competitors — the Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Saab Gripen — are all European.
The official in Sajjan’s office described reports of the government’s intention to buy the Super Hornet as “speculative,” insisting no decision has been made.
Industry sources say they have been waiting for the government to provide some type of indication where it plans to go in terms of replacing the CF-18s. The Defence Department has also been working on a new statement of requirements for what Canada needs in a next-generation fighter.
Meanwhile, the Liberals have also refused to publicly rule out buying the F-35 since winning the election. It’s believed that’s because they have realized that the U.S. aerospace giant responsible for building the stealth fighter, Lockheed Martin, could hit the government with a massive lawsuit.
There is reason for such a worry. Last month, a federal trade tribunal sided with an American company that felt it was treated unfairly during a competition to provide new trucks for the army. The tribunal called for the company’s design to be retested, and if it would have won, for the government to pay compensation.
In that competition, the winning company was paid $834 million, and the loser stands to gain tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions, in compensation following the tribunal’s ruling. In the case of the F-35, that figure could easily reach the billions — all of which would be covered by taxpayers.
Industry representatives warned there could be a fight if the government does move to purchase the Super Hornet, even if it’s labelled an interim measure. But one Defence Department officials said the government might be able to sidestep legal questions by citing urgent national security needs.
The previous Conservative government announced in 2010 that Canada would be buying 65 F-35s, with the first to be delivered in 2015. But it pushed the reset button in 2012 after the auditor general raised questions about the program, and National Defence revealed the jets would cost $46 billion over their lifetimes.