Friday, 3 January 2014

Could the National Fighter Secretariat finally be reaching a (non)decision?

A little over a year after Canada's F-35 Lightning II purchase was "reset" due to concerns over cost and suitability, we still don't seem much closer to a decision whether to continue on with the F-35 purchase, sole source another fighter aircraft, hold a full blown competition, or soldier on with the venerable CF-18 for a few more years (decades?).

Canada's fighter jet selection process thus far...

What we do know is that meetings have been held.  Meetings discussing the estimated cost and effectiveness of extending CF-18 service.  Meetings asking for "clarification" on cost estimates.  Meetings.  Meetings.  Meetings.

Despite rumors that the ultimate decision would be postponed until the 2015 Federal election cycle, the Globe and Mail reports that the secretariat has all the information it's going to get and that it will soon announce one of the following.

  1. Go ahead with the original F-35 purchase as planned.  This, despite concerns over the cost, availability, effectiveness, etc.
  2. Declare full blown fighter competition.
  3. Follow South Korea's example and go with a reduced F-35 order, and consider another aircraft to fly alongside it.
There is a slight caveat, however.  Without declaration of a full blown competition, the secretariat was not able to receive accurate information about the fighters.  They only have a "rough order of magnitude".  This is because the fighter jet manufacturers won't reveal their "best offer" of price and the like without a serious chance of being selected.  This sort of proprietary information is available to serious shoppers only, thank you.  It is also highly dependent on timelines, number of aircraft, and exact specifications of the aircraft and maintenance.  Much like purchasing a car, you don't know all the numbers until you get into the financing room.

It could be a while yet before the CF-18 flies off into the sunset.

There is also the not-so-insignificant issue about the current CF-18 fleet.  A full blown fighter competition could mean further delays, so there is the very real possibility of needing yet another service life extension program (SLEP) on Canada's current fleet of CF-18s.  This isn't an attractive option, as it would likely cost additional millions.  Needless to say, dumping money into old, obsolete fighters instead of a replacement seems counter-productive.

There is a very real possibility that an F-35 order might be beset with delays as well, however.  Even if the program manages to hurdle over the technical obstacles associated with the JSF, there is still the rather large elephant in the room; US budget cuts.  With the Pentagon more or less running the F-35 show, the timeline for development and "peak production" (when the F-35 will be cheapest) is almost entirely up to them.

It's beginning to look more and more like Canada will need to consider some untraditional thinking in selecting its next fighter.

  1. It could mean spending millions keeping the CF-18 flying well past its prime.
  2. It could mean going "all in" with a F-35 purchase and possibly procuring them before they are ready or at an affordable price.
  3. Doing something...  Different.
What do I mean by "different"?

I've advocated for it before, and I'll do it again.  Canada should adopt a mixed fighter fleet.

I'll go into detail why in my next post.


  1. Interesting how whenever one of you mention a fair contest you really mean anything but the F-35...

    1. The F-35 is the de facto choice until something changes otherwise. I use it as the benchmark for this reason.

      I have issues with the other jets being offered, that much is certain. All I want is for the F-35 to prove itself when judged against the others. That hasn't happened yet in Canada.

  2. Hi Doug,

    Just want you to know that the option about keeping the CF-18 flying past its prime is not as expensive as its made out to be - particularly if you don't go with a full blown SLEP. Ignoring avionics and sticking to structures, the third line maintenance contractor, L-3 MAS has world-class experience in maintaining the existing fleet, and a good relationship (through DND), with Boeing, the OEM. In addition, Canada performed an international structural life extension project at the National Research Council with the Australian DSTO in the late 90's and early 2000's that was very successful. The people and know-how to repeat this exists, and would be less significant that the first time round. Finally, every major player is in the business of life extensions of their existing platforms, including the USAF and USN
    (F-16 SLEP) (USN E/F SLEP) (USN F-18 A/D SLEP / SLAP)

    . In the absence of serious global conflict, as long as crew safety is not compromised, there is nothing wrong with stretching your existing platforms, if they can continue to perform the missions.

    1. Thanks for that extra info.

      I bring the costs of an additional SLEP up because it would effectively be putting a substantial amount of money into a platform slated for replacement. One has to wonder if we would get full value out of the costs involved if the aircraft are due to be retired soon after.

      As far as your ending statement, I have no problem with extending an existing platform... But only to a point. Global conflict isn't something you can wait for until it happens, you have to fight with what you have at the time. Fighter jets by their nature need to be superior to their opponent, not just good enough to fly.