29 October 2014
In the words of Geddy Lee (of the progressive rock band Rush, if you didn't listen to FM radio in the '70s and '80s), "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." This certainly applies to the Canadian government's latest move with its long-awaited and controversial fighter buy. The government's decision to kick the country's next fighter purchase down the road actually guarantees the outcome the Harper government wants.
Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the country's 30 year old F/A-18A/B Hornet (CF-18 in Canada) fleet would receive another upgrade, pushing out the replacement fighter buy for another few years, after the next election. CF-18 retirement will be moved from 2020 to 2025.
Ostensibly, this CF-18 upgrade decision was made in order to get past the political controversy associated with Harper's efforts to buy Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in a sole-source decision, and move the problem of which fighter to buy to the next government. In reality, the move puts the decision off until the F-35's strongest competitor is off the market.
Boeing's F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is easily the most important competitor to the F-35 in Canada. It would be a relatively easy transition from the baseline Hornet (although the Super Hornet is a somewhat different plane). It offers very good value for the price (around $55 million unit recurring flyaway, compared with around $100 million for today's F-35A). It's also a twinjet, an option that Canada has historically preferred.
Yet in the next year or two, the Super Hornet production line will start to die. The US Navy and Australia are scheduled to take the last EA-18G Growlers (a Super Hornet variant) in 2016/2017. Unless another customer buys more Super Hornets, this option will be off the table for Canada. Not long after, the Eurofighter, F-15, and F-16 lines will close too. The only surviving fighter options, Dassault's Rafale and Saab's Gripen NG (along with Russian planes) would be very unlikely choices for Canada. Therefore, an F-35 acquisition will be a fait accompli.
The fighter buy represents a much broader foreign policy debate for Canada. An F-35 decision makes sense if Canada thinks its future defense policy revolves around coalition warfighting capabilities. Canada's recent decision to join US-led air strikes against ISIL forces shows that the Harper Government believes this to be the case. By contrast, buying an older and less expensive plane (like the Super Hornet) would be more sensible if Canada viewed its future defense policy as one of national sovereignty maintenance. This would involve airspace patrols, maritime patrols, and an effectively defensive posture.
However, the recent CF-18 upgrade decision effectively ends any debate here. And given the parsimonious nature of this move, an otherwise controversial outcome will be accomplished with minimal debate.