Suppose you were driving a beat-up old vehicle with high mileage that was starting to cost you more in repairs than the vehicle was worth. At some point, you would likely decide it was time to replace it — and you probably wouldn’t wait 20 years to do so.
The process to replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18 jet fighters began in 1997 when the federal government identified Lockheed Martin F-35s as the potential replacements. Almost 20 years later, Canada’s air force is still waiting.
Admittedly, spending billions of dollars to purchase a fleet of high-tech jets is far different from buying a replacement automobile. But does it really need to be such a long, drawn-out process?
In 1977, Canada’s military issued a call for tender for new fighter jets to replace its aging fleet of that time. The CF-18 Hornet was commissioned in 1980 and two years later, the first of the new jets, built by McDonnell-Douglas, were delivered.
The road to replacing the CF-18s has been much longer — and bumpier.
The Harper government announced its intention in 2010 to purchase F-35 stealth fighters to replace the CF-18s, but it’s been a controversial issue filled with rancorous debate. Much of the criticism centred around uncertain costs, estimated at $16 billion in 2010. But a 2014 report for the Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Rideau Institute by Michael Byers suggested government estimates for the full F-35 program may have underestimated the costs by anywhere from $12 billion to $81 billion, depending on factors over the full 40-year life of the aircraft.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during last year’s election campaign to cancel the planned purchase of the F-35s. Instead, the Liberals have announced plans to explore purchasing 18 new Boeing-made Super Hornet jets on an interim basis until it can decide on a permanent replacement for Canada’s aging fighter jets. But again, there’s a question over the cost of the Super Hornets, which the Liberals say is $65 million per plane compared to $175 per plane for the F-35s. Those cost estimates don’t match with costs reportedly paid by other countries for Super Hornets or F-35s.
Meanwhile, Canada’s CF-18s continue to grow closer to the end of their life expectancy. In July of this year, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan emphasized the need to replace the air force’s 77 remaining CF-18s soon because only about half the fleet is available for operations at any given time, not enough to meet Canada’s NATO and North American defence commitments.
A $500-million upgrade ordered by the Conservatives in 2014 is expected to keep the CF-18s flying until the mid-2020s, but sooner or later — preferably sooner — a decision is going to have to be made and new aircraft purchased.
A patchwork solution to keep Canada’s aging jet fighters in the air will only work for so long.