Legacy Hornets can’t close Canada's capability gap

 –  Feb 27, 2017

Boeing responds to the open letter from former Air Force Commanders who suggest cheaper alternatives to purchasing new Super Hornets.

It was recently suggested that instead of purchasing 18 modern F/A-18 Super Hornets as an interim step to address the Royal Canadian Air Force’s capability gap, that the Government of Canada should rethink its plan. After critiquing the interim buy in an open letter, 13 retired generals suggested that the Ministry of Defense should instead address the gap by purchasing legacy Hornets similar to the CF-18 jets the RCAF relies on today.

While we have great respect for those generals’ service to Canada, unfortunately the criticisms spelled out in the letter don’t hold up to scrutiny. Additionally, the generals’ proposed solution, while appealing on first thought, is not a practical way of solving the capability gap today and does nothing to ensure the RCAF has the equipment needed to fulfill its missions in the future.

Claim: “[Canada] should seriously examine the prospect of purchasing so-called legacy Hornets…that are increasingly becoming available as Canada’s partner nations replace their older Hornet fleets with the F-35. For example, both the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force will have surplus F-18s that are very close in configuration to our own.”

Response: Neither the United States nor Australia has surplus F/A-18s to sell to Canada.

The United States Navy, which flies F/A-18s, is facing a major strike fighter shortage. American Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran recently testified to the U.S. Congress that 62% of the U.S Navy's F/A-18s are grounded. The problem is so bad that in the United States, that the Defense Department has taken to museums to find spare parts needed to repair its current legacy F-18 fleet. Like Canada’s CF-18’s, American legacy Hornets are approaching the end of the airframe’s designed lifespan and the cost to keep them flying is multiplying. Given that fact, and the fact that the U.S. Navy’s version of the F-35 won’t be combat ready for several more years, the U.S. Navy is looking to purchase new Super Hornets, which the U.S. plans to fly well into the 2040s.

Similarly, Australia’s legacy F/A-18 fleet isn’t an option. Because it faced a “capability gap” similar to what Canada faces today, the Royal Australian Air Force purchased 24 Super Hornets to ensure that Australia's air combat capability edge is maintained until the introduction into service of the planned F-35A Lightning II.

Even if used Hornets were available, they would only compound the 50% availability rate of the RCAF CF-18 fleet.

Claim: “Although the Super Hornet does have some commonality with our current CF-18s, it is a different airplane, requiring its own training system for pilots and technicians, as well as new flight simulators, logistic support and maintenance organizations specific to the Super Hornet.”

ResponseThe Super Hornet was designed specifically to ensure an easy transition from the legacy Hornet. Pilots of both planes agree, “You can take a newly qualified Legacy Hornet pilot, put him into the cockpit of the Rhino, and he will be able to start-up, takeoff, and land. It is that similar from a basic airplane standpoint. There are some very subtle changes to some of the switches and procedures, but outside of that, the ground ops are very similar,” according to one account.

This is the case since the Super Hornet while, a completely new, highly survivable aircraft, was designed to have common maintenance procedures with the legacy Hornet. It takes just 120 hours for Classic Hornet maintainers and one month for aircrews to transition to Super Hornets, including ground strike and weapons training.

Claim: “The air force would have to draw personnel from the existing CF-18 fighter fleet (usually its most experienced people) to help bring into service a new and more complex fleet of fighter aircraft. But that would not be enough. It would be necessary to recruit, train and qualify several hundred new technicians and dozens of pilots.”

Response: The RCAF could easily deploy CF-18s from one of its squadrons to the other three to ensure operational availability while freeing existing personnel and assets to support Super Hornets.

Claim: “Quite apart from such technical issues, we are aware that buying, operating and supporting an interim fleet of Super Hornets would be an expensive proposition.”

Response: Everyone agrees that the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) needs a modern fighter fleet to ensure Canada can defend its borders and meet its NORAD and NATO treaty obligations. The current CF-18 fleet was introduced into RCAF inventory starting in 1982, and was scheduled to be retired in 2006. In 2002, the RCAF spent $2.6 billion to extend the life of the fleet. But given the age of the planes and the lack of spare parts, keeping these plans flying is increasingly expensive and time-consuming. Purchasing legacy Hornets, if they were available, might appear cheaper in the short-term but the maintenance costs and required modifications for these jets would be much higher than that of new F/A-18 Super Hornets. Ultimately Canadian taxpayers would see that the idea of acquiring legacy Hornets would be a much more expensive proposition than the generals’ letter claims.

According to the U.S. Government, the Super Hornet’s cost per flight hour – about US$16,000 in 2013 – is lower than any other tactical aircraft in US inventory. Furthermore, the addition of F/A-18 Super Hornets to the Canadian fleet will automatically and immediately increase fighter availability, as well as the capability of the entire fleet through buddy tanking, advanced sensors and data-sharing capabilities. The Super Hornet, with its designed-in stealth, premiere AESA radar, and multi-role capabilities will bring the latest generation of technologies to the RCAF.

By any measure, the interim buy is a cost effective and smart way to ensure the RCAF can meet Canada’s commitments.

– submitted to FrontLine by Boeing Defense, Space & Security (27 Feb. 2017)