Proposals for a new fighter aircraft for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF)’s Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP) were submitted to the Canadian government on July 31.
Three bids were received by the RCAF – the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, the Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet Block III, and the Saab JAS-39E Gripen-E – for 88 new fighters to replace the McDonnell Douglas CF-18A/B Hornet in service.
The RFP was issued in July 2019, with Airbus also invited to submit a proposal for the Eurofighter EF-2000. But, along with Dassault which had previously elected not to bid with its Rafale fighter, Airbus didn’t proceed with a bid, reportedly because it could not meet Canada’s industry capability requirements.
“Our government committed to purchasing a full fleet of 88 aircraft to be able to meet our NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and NATO obligations simultaneously,” Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement. “Efficient and modern fighter jets are an integral part of any air force and we continue to work diligently to make sure that we provide the members of the RCAF the tools they need to protect Canada, both at home and abroad.”
Despite the then new Trudeau government suspending in 2015 its previous commitment to acquire up to 90 F-35As, Canada remains a partner nation in the Joint Strike Fighter program, with Canadian industry already winning billions of dollars in contracts to supply components for the global F-35 fleet. Prime Minister Trudeau suspended the program on the back of a campaign pledge in the wake of several programmatic issues, most of which have been addressed in recent years as the program matured.
“We are extremely proud of our longstanding partnership with Canada, which has played a key role in the F-35’s development,” Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Program executive vice president, Greg Ulmer said in a company statement. “The 5th Generation F-35 would transform the RCAF fleet and deliver the capabilities necessary to safeguard Canadian skies. The F-35’s unique mix of stealth and sensor technology will enable the RCAF to modernize their contribution to NORAD operations, ensure Arctic sovereignty and meet increasingly sophisticated global threats.”
Boeing’s Super Hornet bid comes after an interim buy of 18 F/A-18Es was initially approved for the RCAF in 2016, before being cancelled following a trade dispute with the US over government subsidies for the Canadian-built Bombardier CSeries (now Airbus A220) regional airliner.
With production of the Block II Super Hornet winding up in early 2020, the revitalised Block III iteration of the F/A-18E/F currently being developed for the US Navy will form the basis of Boeing’s bid. The US State Department has already approved a possible Canadian Super Hornet buy.
“We have a partnership with Canada that spans more than 100 years,” Boeing Defense, Space & Security’s Director of Canada Fighter Sales, Jim Barnes, said in a statement. “The Super Hornet is the most cost-effective and capable option for the FFCP, and a Super Hornet selection will help the RCAF meet their mission needs.”
Saab’s bid is based on its latest JAS-39E Gripen which it is developing for Sweden and Brazil. A stretched and enhanced version of the JAS-39C/D, the Gripen E uses the GE F414 engine from the Super Hornet, and features advanced datalinks and the long-range MBDA Meteor air-to-air missile. Saab has an extensive local industry agreement with Brazil for that country’s Gripen requirement, so should be able to meet Canada’s industry capability requirements.
“Saab’s Gripen fighter is designed to operate in harsh environments and defeat the most advanced global threats,” Senior Vice President and head of Saab business area Aeronautics, Jonas Hjelm said. “The system meets all of Canada’s specific defence requirements, offering exceptional performance and advanced technical capabilities. A unique element of the avionics design is that Gripen E’s system can be updated quickly, maintaining technological superiority against any adversary.”
Canada is expected to make a decision on the successful tender in 2022, with service entry from 2027. Until then, the RCAF’s fleet of about 80 CF-18s augmented with up to 25 former-RAAF F/A-18A/Bs – none of which is younger than 30 years of age – will continue to soldier on, many with upgrades.
COMMENT: Which way Canada goes with its new fighter will likely depend on what it sees as the RCAF’s primary air combat priority for the next 30 years.
On paper, the Gripen appears to be a viable option due to it being comparatively inexpensive in what is an increasingly challenging economic situation. It is also optimised for the arctic and sub-arctic environment including short icy runway operations for which Canada has clear requirements, and Saab’s undeniable reputation for building high-quality and very capable combat aircraft.
But Gripen shares few components and systems with Canada’s Five Eyes and NATO partners which it will mostly be operating with, and may be difficult to integrate into joint force operations.
Boeing has unsubtly emphasised in the concept art (title pic) it released with its proposal that, if the NORAD mission – for which Canada is partnered with the USAF – is the priority, a conformal fuel tank (CFT) and infrared search and track (IRST) sensor-equipped Super Hornet loaded with a dozen or more air-to-air missiles is a formidable deterrent.
The Block III Super Hornet would be common to that of the US Navy (and likely the RAAF at some point), while the corporate knowledge gained within the RCAF of operating the classic Hornet for more than 35 years would make a transition to the Super Hornet a smoother one compared to an entirely new type with a unique design philosophy.
But if, as I suspect, the RCAF is looking to continue its current operational concept (OPCON) of a mix of NORAD, NATO air-policing as it has done in the Baltic states in recent years, and coalition operations with Five Eyes and NATO partners, the F-35 would seem to offer the greatest all-round capability for these missions.
As an F-35 partner nation and operator, Canada would have access to electronic threat data on mission data files such as those generated by the joint Australia-Canada-UK reprogramming lab (ACURL) at Eglin AFB in Florida – from which Canada is currently suspended pending its fighter decision. That data and access to other elements of the F-35’s ‘secret sauce’ of next generation will allow RCAF F-35s to integrate seamlessly into a Five Eyes or NATO joint force.