Super Hornets, Eh? Canadian Airpower Falls Short on North American Defense


When Canadian Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan met with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis last Monday, he likely countered concerns over Canadian defense spending by pointing towards Ottawa’s recent decision to acquire 18 F/A-18E/Fs Super Hornets from Boeing. Last November, Sajjan announced that Canada would immediately close a “capability gap” that might prevent it from fulfilling its defense and alliance obligations.  First, Canada would begin negotiations with Boeing to acquire an “interim” fleet of 18 Super Hornets to supplement its 76 ageing CF-18 Hornets.  Second, Canada would initiate an “an open and transparent competition” to consider a replacement aircraft for the entire CF-18 fleet, reaching a decision in five years’ time. Finally, Canada would remain part of the Joint Strike Fighter program, otherwise known as the F-35, to keep abreast of developments. Overall, the announcement had the qualities of reasonable action and stewardship of Canadian national security.

But appearances are deceiving. Canada’s decision will leave it a less capable partner — and not only because the Super Hornet is a less capable aircraft than the F-35.

Politics over Strategy

Much of the criticism directed toward the November announcement has rightly focused on politics. The Liberal Party of Canada spent six years criticizing Harper’s handling of the program and the travails of the F-35. In the 2015 election campaign, the Liberal Party’s military platform focused its ire on the F-35:

We will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber. We will immediately launch an open and transparent competition to replace the CF-18 fighter aircraft. The primary mission of our fighter aircraft should remain the defence of North America, not stealth first-strike capability. We will reduce the procurement budget for replacing the CF-18s, and will instead purchase one of the many, lower-priced options that better match Canada’s defence needs.

This position posed several problems for the Liberals once in office. Legally, the government could not exclude the F-35 from a competition.  Although Trudeau continued to argue that the F-35 “does not work and is far from working,” Sajjan backed away from that argument — particularly as two F-35 models were declared ready for combat and then operationally deployed.

Furthermore, the defense bureaucracy firmly believed that the F-35 was the right choice. The Conservative government launched a reassessment process in 2012.  This reaffirmed that the F-35 provided the most capable option, offered the best industrial benefits, and was the least expensive over its life cycle. To reduce potential criticism, the Liberal government required 235 civilian and military officials to sign permanent non-disclosure agreements. Liberal parliamentarians also recently blocked a motion to study the interim purchase.

Finally, the government’s assertion that five years were necessary to conduct a proper competition was widely derided as conveniently pushing the likely F-35 purchase to after the next election. Prominent figures condemned this plan, including two former procurement heads for the Canadian Forces and two former chiefs of the Air Staff.

In general, it should not be surprising that the government’s decision is primarily designed to fulfill a poorly considered campaign promise. The real issue is that instead of quickly bolstering Canadian airpower, it will actually diminish it.

The Alleged Capability Gap

In November, Sajjan argued that urgent action was necessary because the Royal Canadian Air Force faced an immediate “capability gap.” It is true that Canada faces an obvious capability gap when it comes to combat aircraft. This will happen in the 2020s, when its current CF-18 fleet will be too old to fly. Canada originally procured its Hornets in 1982, and they have received several life extensions to allow them to fly to 2025. New aircraft must be phased in by 2020 to facilitate an orderly transition. Given the timelines for production and delivery, it was recognized that the Royal Canadian Air Force faces a potential gap if a decision on a replacement aircraft was not made soon.

There had been apparent agreement on this last spring, with both the commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Lt. Gen. Michael Hood, and Sajjan discussing the capability gap in future terms.  But then a substantial change in views occurred. In June The National Post broke the story that the Liberal government was considering the sole-source selection of the Super Hornet:

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.”

That narrative suggested that the capability gap facing the Royal Canadian Air Force was not a problem to be faced in the 2020s, but rather one that exists today.  Sajjan’s office began to argue in June that Canada lacked sufficient available aircraft to meet Canada’s defense commitments. This assessment contradicted that of the Royal Canadian Air Force commander.  In testimony prepared for the Canadian Senate after the November interim buy announcement, Lt. Gen. Hood said he was “confident that … there is sufficient capability to support a transition to a replacement fighter capability based on the ongoing projects and planned life extension to 2025 for the CF-18.” He further testified:

The government has announced a policy whereby the Royal Canadian Air Force is required to be able to simultaneously meet both our NORAD and our NATO commitments. I am at present unable to do that with the present CF­18 fleet…. They’ve changed the policy of the number of aircraft I have to have.

Asked by a reporter about the shift in policy, Hood responded “I’m not privy to the decisions behind the change.” It was a significant admission.

What are the defense requirements facing the Royal Canadian Air Force?  And why are 76 CF-18s not sufficient to meet them? A December 2014 report by Defence Research and Development Canada — Canada’s defense research agency — offers a detailed insight on these matters. Day-to-day peacetime requirements entailed being able maintain 12 aircraft for training, scramble 12 domestically, and deploy six abroad for NATO. However, there is also a North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) wartime requirement for 36 aircraft to be available for domestic operations. The report states that to meet that threshold, “all expeditionary and force generation activities must be suspended.” Translated into numbers, the lower bound for the day-to-day fleet is about 30 aircraft and the upper bound is about 54 aircraft. Publicly released documents and comments by Sajjan suggest that roughly half of the fighter fleet’s aircraft are mission ready at any given time, or 25 to 36 aircraft. Thus, only on a good day can the Royal Canadian Air Force meet the lower bound of its day-to-day requirements and it cannot meet any higher requirements without extraordinary efforts.

According to the government’s new standards, this constitutes an unacceptable capability gap and provides justification for the interim option. However, as the report makes clear, the availability rate of the CF-18 fleet drives the situation. Indeed, Sajjan’s spokesperson admitted,  “With the current availability rate what it is, even if the 77 airplanes could fly forever, there still wouldn’t be enough of them to simultaneously meet our NORAD and NATO commitments.” Unfortunately, investing in a small number of new type of aircraft would likely only exacerbate these problems.

The Personnel Gap

Personnel issues have had a greater effect on generating capability than a lack of aircraft.  Since the early 1990s, the fighter force has had difficulty meeting its established personnel strength and increased pilot production rates have been outpaced by the retirement and release of personnel. The shortage of trained and experienced personnel results in a lack of capacity to generate sorties. There are several factors behind this, including a high operational tempo, remotely located primary fighter bases, and a competitive civilian job market. Furthermore,  pilots are flying less: diminished defense budgets have led to a major reduction in flying hours for its CF-18s. In some years, attrition rates have reached 15 percent in the operational squadrons, which has resulted in a dramatic drop in the average pilot age and experience levels.

These secondary effects have a larger impact on availability rates than the age of the CF-18 fleet. Acquiring a second aircraft type will not improve the situation. It would, however, add extra costs and exacerbate readiness problems due to the duplication of existing infrastructure, maintenance support, as well as operational and maintenance training. The December 2014 report by Defence Research and Development Canada concluded:

A mixed fighter fleet can provide the same or equivalent capability, but not without significantly more aircraft and pilots. Mixed fighter fleets comparable in size to the single fighter fleet will likely result in lower overall capability, at a higher cost.

The report goes on to suggest that the interim fleet is a poor option:

The costs involved with bridging options make them unsuitable for filling capability gaps in the short term; any short term investment results in disproportionately high costs during the bridging period…. This analysis assumes that the Government of Canada will not take on significant additional costs beyond those identified for replacing the CF-18, and so bridging options will not be further considered in this document [emphasis ours].

The report was removed from the agency’s website the day after the announcement of the interim fleet — perhaps to avoid precisely this sort of critique.

To its credit, the Liberal government opened its announcement of the interim capability by stating its intent to increase funding for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Unfortunately, increased dollars can resolve some issues but not personnel shortages in highly skilled career fields, such as fighter pilots that require a decade of investment. The air force has very little leeway to increase its pilot pipeline: Efforts to do so earlier this decade were hindered by maintenance constraints, yearly flying rate reductions, and a limited number of instructor pilots, which led retention rates to sag further. Increased investment in personnel accounts will have to be sustained for quite some time to correct these issues.  Given that Canada currently spends less than 1 percent of GDP on defense — putting them at 24th out of 28 NATO members — and faces a growing budget deficit, it is reasonable to doubt that the government will be able or willing to fulfill its pledge.

The Real Capability Gap

The Trudeau government has based its decision to buy a small interim fleet of F/A-18E Super Hornets on the need to close a capability gap that is more a matter of policy framing and availability rates than the lack of new aircraft. The decision to invest $5 to $7 billion on an interim fleet will divert much-needed funds from the readiness issues that are at the heart of the current capability gap. The United States will also suffer financial consequences from the decision. As Gen. Christopher Bogdan stated in his October 2015 House Committee hearing, a cut of 65 aircraft by Canada would increase the cost $1 million a copy on the 2000 or so F-35As to be produced. While Canada may still procure the F-35 in the late 2020s, the effect to the partnership is largely the same: It will delay Lockheed Martin’s efforts to improve the cost curve and thus affect the fighter’s overall affordability.

The delay in acquiring a full fleet replacement for the CF-18s for five years will create an even wider qualitative and quantitative capability gap in the late 2020s, exacerbated by the challenges of operating an interim fleet. Most allied states are reequipping a majority of their tactical air forces with the F-35. Although the US Navy and Royal Australian Air Force will be operating the F/A-18E Super Hornet, both will employ them in quite different concepts of operations than Canada. The U.S. Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air concept will have Super Hornets protected behind a team a highly capable network of capabilities including the F-35C, EA-18G EW platform, and E-2D AWACS. The RAAF’s 24 F/A-18E/F will support 75 F-35As. Canada, by comparison, will have 18 Super Hornets and 76 CF-18s that will be over 40 years of age.

Canada’s decision entails clear operational risks. Recent Danish and U.S. Director of Test and Evaluation analyses noted that the Super Hornet is not well-suited for missions at the higher end of the capability spectrum. Every time Canada deploys its aircraft to engage in Baltic Air Policing, for instance, it enters an environment where its aircraft face an advanced air defense system that can track and shoot them down with relative ease.

“[E]xclud[ing] requirements that do not reflect Canada’s interests, such as first-strike stealth capabilities,” as the 2015 Liberal platform put it, ignores the operational environment that RCAF pilots will encounter as they advance Canadian interests. To face future threats — including next-generation fighters, bombers laden with supersonic cruise missiles, and advanced anti-air systems — the Royal Canadian Air Force will depend on the increasingly operationally obsolescent CF-18 fleet and the small, partially operationally relevant Super Hornets. As noted by the  Department of National Defence,

[A] fighter fleet that is physically in mint condition but can no longer fulfill its operational roles and missions has, for all practical purposes, come to the end of its useful life…. Beyond 2025…the operational relevance of the CF-18 will decline quite rapidly.

In the not-to-distant future, Canada’s potential contribution to an allied air campaign will be negligible, and may even be seen as a liability to NATO planners.

Similar concerns can be raised in a NORAD context. The Royal Canadian Air Force conducts approximately 200 intercept missions each year in defense of Canadian and U.S. territory. By the mid-2020s, the U.S. Air Force’s capabilities in Alaska will largely consist of F-35s and F-22s. For the binational command to function, the United States requires a capable partner that employs interoperable capabilities. If current plans are followed, Canada will not be able to be that partner.

The government at that point will echo the words of Trudeau, who cast blame on the Harper government for failing to recapitalize the CF-18 fleet in time to avoid a capability gap. In this case however, Trudeau’s adherence to a misguided pre-election statement will be seen as more than mismanagement but rather as a deliberate choice to reduce Canada’s airpower capabilities while expending resources that could have otherwise enhanced them.


Dr. Gary Schaub, Jr. is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Military Studies, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen.

Richard Shimooka is a Research Fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

Image: DoD photo by Randy Hepp, U.S. Navy