There are at least three other options for a jet fighter.
by Geoffrey Stevens
Now that the Harper government has “hit the reset button,” as they say, on the acquisition of new jets for the Royal Canadian Air Force, what happens next?
That’s not at all clear — transparency not being a hallmark of the Conservative regime. What we do know, because the government told us this much, is that an “independent” panel will review the evaluation process to replace the aging CF-18s. How independent the panel will actually be is also hard to tell, although some of the experts named to the panel seem to be free from entanglements with the military establishment or the warplane industry.
That’s good. But will the government actually pay heed if the “evaluation process” recommends an aircraft other than the one that got it into this mess in the first place: the absurdly over-priced F-35 Lightning stealth fighter made by Lockheed Martin in the United States.
Just about every country that was proposing to acquire the F-35, including the US itself, is experiencing buyer’s remorse and is either reconsidering or reducing its purchase plan. Canada finds itself, along with Australia, in the vanguard of this parade of the disillusioned.
The new process needs to be separated from the bureaucrats and politicians (such as Peter McKay) who were involved in the decision to buy the F-35 without looking at any alternatives.
To have credibility, the new process needs to be separated from the bureaucrats and politicians who were involved in the decision to buy the F-35 without looking at any alternatives. Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose, new to the F-35 file, should be good to go, but not Peter MacKay, the embattled defence minister, who led the Tory cost cover-up for the past 2 ½ years.
Let’s take Ambrose at her word when she said last week: “[We] are taking the time to do a complete assessment of all available options.”
Options do exist. There is no perfect aircraft for Canada. But there are a few candidates. We can exclude the new generation of jet fighters manufactured and marketed by Russia and China, because there is no way, politically, that Ottawa will go there.
That leaves the Typhoon, a multi-role fighter built by a European consortium, the French Rafale, the Gripen (built by Sweden’s Saab), and the American Super Hornet, made by Boeing. Each has limitations, as does the F-35, but each would cost significantly less than $48.5 billion — that’s the latest estimate for 65 F-35s (the original price, remember, was to be a “mere” $16 billion for the planes and a maintenance contract). Each of these other aircraft is already in service somewhere, unlike the oft-delayed F-35.
Each of these other aircraft (the Typhoon, the Rafale and the Super Hornet) is already in service somewhere, unlike the oft-delayed F-35.
The simplest decision for the government would be to stick with the aircraft and supplier with which it is most familiar. That would be Boeing and the F-18 Super Hornet, the new version of the CF-18 Hornet, which has served the Canadian Forces reliably for three decades.
The Super Hornet does most of the things Canada needs. It does not have the same “stealth” capacity as the F-35 to evade enemy radar, but it has adequate range and with two engines is better equipped than the single-engine F-35 to police long coastlines and vast Arctic spaces.
The Super Hornet is not cheap; no modern warplane is. Calculating the cost of military aircraft is a mug’s game, as the Harper government discovered. But as nearly as I can figure, if the base price of one F-35 works out to $88 million (that’s for the plane only without maintenance or any of the related expenses), the comparable figure for one Super Hornet is just over $55 million, or 60 per cent of the F-35 cost.
A betting person would wager that the government will take its time. It’s already been seven years since it decided the F-35 was the plane for Canada. It will take time to undo that decision. The evaluation process will take a year or two, then the bureaucracy will have to review the recommendation, and the cabinet will have to ponder a decision.
The next election, due in October 2015, will be safely in the history books before anything happens.