My earliest memory of the murky world of military procurement was back around 1991 when PM Brian Mulroney announced the purchase of 50 new EH101 helicopters to replace our ancient fleet of Sea Kings, knowing he would likely not be around to see the sale through. As expected, new PM Jean Chrétien cancelled the order immediately upon taking office in 1993, paying $500 million in cancellation penalties. After various scandals, delays and political shenanigans, Canada finally said goodbye to the Sea Kings 26 years later when we took delivery of 28 CH-148 Cyclones in 2019 at approximately 3 times the cost per unit of the original order.
I learned along the way that the helicopter fiasco was not an anomaly. It is, in fact, pretty much how these things go, and the replacement of Canada’s obsolete CF-18 fighter jets is no exception.
The original sole-source contract for the Lockheed Martin F-35 followed by a change of government and a pledge to eliminate the F-35 from consideration as we continued to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to Lockheed Martin to be part of the development of the jet, followed by a dispute with Boeing over subsidies for Bombardier that soured our relationship with the maker of the alternative F/A-18 jet, followed by flip-flopping on the F-35, followed by changing requirements, followed by a purchase of used “interim” aircraft exactly like the ones we are replacing from Australia; accompanied by delays and budget escalations — it all bears a definite resemblance to the painful helicopter purchase.
Regardless of all that, a decision is soon to be made, and with an election looming I thought it would be a good time to look at the options on the table. There are only 3 of them. The wrong choice could consume billions of dollars that might otherwise be spent on making Canadians’ lives better.
Lockheed Martin F-35
Max Speed: Mach 1.6
Combat Range: 1,239 km
Cost per Unit: ~US$78M
Operating Cost per Hour: ~$43,000
This is the benchmark. It is the most advanced fighter-jet design on the market and the only production stealth jet in the NATO world. The only true “fifth-generation” fighter.
Canada has sunk $613 million into this airplane to buy the privilege of being part of it’s development, though proponents will tell you that we received over $2 billion in industrial development benefits for our investment. (Always be skeptical about claims of industrial development benefits.)
It was designed to be an “everything” jet: patrolling airspace, air-to-air combat, ground attacks, information gathering, etc. That is not really the case, however. What it is really good at is sneaking into the territory of enemies who have advanced defences to destroy ground targets. It is not super good at those other things.
It has also been plagued with technical problems and cost increases, so much so that the U.S. Air Force wants to develop a new fighter jet to do day-to-day operations so that they don’t have to sink more money into the F-35 “rathole” than they need to.
we’re talking about the F-35. The 25-ton stealth warplane has become the very problem it was supposed to solve. And now America needs a new fighter to solve that F-35 problemForbes
Boeing F/A-18 “Super Hornet”
Max Speed: Mach 1.6
Combat Range: 722 km
Cost per Unit: ~US$70M
Operating Cost per Hour: ~$18,000
This jet is basically a newer version of our current airplane. As such, transitioning from one to the other would be simpler and probably cheaper than the other two options. Training the pilots, designing the maintenance program and so on would all benefit to some degree from the similarities between the two planes.
But like upgrading your car, you’re getting some new features the old one didn’t have — like anti-stealth technology.
You can target stealth airplanes at very long range without the radar because you can process its location … it is checkmate for the whole fifth-gen argument.Skies Magazine
In other words, the Super Hornet is already making the F-35’s stealth technology obsolete. If you’re counting on the F-35 to still be invisible to, say, Chinese weaponry in 25 years, you are making a big mistake.
But we’re not talking about the F-35, we’re talking about the Super Hornet. In addition to the above benefits, it is also the only one of the three options with 2 engines, which Boeing argues makes it more reliable in the event that, for example, you suck a Canada Goose or some other bird into your turbine.
On the “con” side of the coin: it’s combat range stinks. On paper at least. Bear in mind that the combat range numbers quoted in the SPECS are for fully loaded planes. As weight is reduced, ranges grow substantially. Strip the Hornet down to 2 sidewinder missiles and you can cruise 2,346 km all of a sudden. Furthermore, the Hornet can be configured as a tanker for refueling other F/A-18s. So, for example, you could take off from base with 5 jets. Somewhere over the ocean the one jet can refuel the other 4 and turn back while the others continue to Hans Island or wherever they’re going.
Max Speed: Mach 2
Combat Range: 1,500 km
Cost per Unit: ~US$60M
Operating Cost per Hour: ~$8,000
The Gripen has a lot going for it besides a cool name. It is fast, it can fly a long way and it can take off and land on short runways — as little as 600m. All of which makes it attractive for an arctic nation like us, which is no surprise as it’s made by another arctic nation (Sweden).
It is also cheap. The actual purchase price is not that different than the others, but the operating costs are less than the Super Hornet and a fraction of the F-35.
But what about technology? The F-35 has stealth technology, the F/A-18 has anti-stealth technology. What does the Gripen have? Advanced and upgradable electronic warfare systems that includes “active jamming” to shield the aircraft and sensors to detecting enemy planes before they detect you.
The idea was not to build a geometrically stealth aircraft that would be obsolete long before the life expectancy of the fighter, due to continuously and exponentially growing new technologies that target geometrically stealth aircraftSkies Magazine
Another big advantage that Saab is touting (I know because I was getting ads in my twitter feed long before I decided to write this post) is the fact that the jets will be made in Canada. They obviously know a little something about Canadian politics.
There are two main knocks against the Saab: 1) the type “E” that we’re looking at buying is still in development which adds an element of risk, although the Gripen line is well established; and 2) it’s not made by a NATO partner.
To this last point: Sweden is not part of NATO, but it collaborates with NATO and its planes are used by other NATO nations, so integration should not be an issue.
I would also add: The F-35 and Super Hornet are made in a country that, 2 years ago, embargoed steel and aluminum exports from Canada for “national security” reasons. To me, diversifying our procurement to include Sweden is a pro, not a con.
Costs for these things are difficult to pin down, but it is clear that the F-35 is by far the most expensive option. As mentioned, the price per unit is not that much more than the other options, but it’s the operating costs that will get you. At the estimate of US$43,000 per hour of air time*, and figuring 250 hours of airtime per year, a single F-35 will cost over US$400 million to own and operate. That puts the total program cost at over $35 billion.
Then there are also reliability issues with only 36% of the current U.S. Air Force F-35 fleet available at any given time.
Then there is the fact that the F-35 is not particularly well-suited to our needs.
Why do I say that? Because it is a very heavy aircraft with small wings which means it can’t land on small runways unless you bolt on a parachute like Norway did, and it’s range is not particularly well suited for patrolling the north, which will only become more critical in the years to come. It is primarily a ‘sneak-attack’ jet (my words, not an official industry term) based on everything I have read, which should not be a top priority for a “peace keeping” nation trying to protect a vast territory like Canada.
What is the best jet for Canada?
Both the F/A-18 “Super Hornet” and the Gripen have reasonable operating costs, and they each have advantages. The Hornet, primarily in the ease of transitioning from the current fleet of CF-18s and twin-engine design, and the Gripen in its operational flexibility.
I personally like the Gripen. It seems tailor-made for us: fast (mach-2) to cover a lot of ground, fuel efficient (for a fighter jet), excellent range, and ability to land at small northern airports. The low operating costs seal the deal. The assembling of the jet in Canada is a bonus.
What jet will we probably buy?
The worst possible choice: the F-35. Why do I say this? Because …
- We’ve already spent $613 million on it’s development. Yes, this is a sunk cost and should not factor into rational decision-making, but the “rational” part of that statement is where this whole premise falls apart.
- The largest costs — the operational costs — are off in the future, well beyond the decision-making time frame of a typical Canadian government.
- It was reinstated as an option in the request for bids after being ruled out by the Liberal Party in the 2015 campaign. There must be something about the F-35 that they like. Maybe it’s the …
- Cool factor. The government would love to boast that it’s buying the most advanced jet in the world. A STEALTH JET.
- The selection process was changed (some might say “rigged”) to favour ground attacks for overseas operations — the one thing the F-35 does well — with “little emphasis on the important area of long-term maintenance and sustainability” — the biggest weaknesses of the F-35. (source)
- Buying the F-35 will open the door to retaining supplier contracts — the thing that we’ve paying to be a part of for the past several years. This will allow the PM to smile and say that he’s protecting or growing Canadian jobs, even as he throws billions of dollars out the window.
What can you do?
I would like to say: tell your current and/or prospective MPs that if they select the F-35 you’re never voting for them again.
But, it is a difficult topic, because it’s complex. Very few people really understand the pros and cons of the options and the nuances of the evaluation criteria. Your MP probably doesn’t understand, and they know that you probably don’t either, and there is no poll saying this is a top issue for Canadians. So you may tell your views, but they probably won’t listen to you or give any credence to what you have to say about it.
Yet it’s an important topic. Like the ship procurement I wrote about last time, vast amounts of money are at stake, not to mention our national security. Although you and I may never understand all the ins and outs of the procurement, it becomes clear with a modest amount of research that one choice is worse than the others.
If we don’t let the politicians know that we’re watching, they will keep doing what they’ve been doing since 1991, and that’s not good for the country.
*Some estimates are lower, but I used the same source for all three for consistency, and all estimates I’ve seen still put the F-35 well above the others.