A December 6 report by Reuters says Canada will soon announce it will scrap the planned acquisition of 18 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, and instead buy an unspecified number of retired Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18A/B ‘classic’ Hornets to supplement its own CF-18 fleet.
The report, which quotes three unnamed sources who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, says the Super Hornet deal would be abandoned due to the ongoing trade dispute with Boeing and the US government over subsidies by the Canadian federal and Quebec provincial governments to Bombardier for its CSeries narrowbody airliner.
Boeing launched a trade challenge against Bombardier, claiming it had ‘dumped’ onto the US domestic market 75 CSeries ordered by US airline Delta Air Lines, despite Boeing not having offered an alternative of its own for Delta’s requirement. Boeing’s claim was upheld by the US Department of Commerce which subsequently imposed a nearly 300 per cent tariff on the per unit sale price of the Delta order.
An official request by Canada for 18 Super Hornets was made in 2016 to fulfil an interim requirement pending a decision on the ultimate CF-18 replacement being made. Canada was an early Joint Strike Fighter program partner nation and remains so today, but the Trudeau Liberal government was swept to power in late 2014 promising to review the previous conservative party’s decision to acquire 65 F-35As, and has now undertaken to conduct a competitive evaluation of the market next year and make a decision sometime in 2019. This suggests it would be unlikely any long-term CF-18 replacement could enter service before 2025, meaning the oldest Canadian CF-18s will be approaching 40 years old.
The Australian angle continues to gain momentum, with Canadian officials reportedly visiting RAAF Williamtown in August to inspect the RAAF aircraft, and Australian officials visiting Ottawa in November for further discussions. But with the RAAF’s first F-35 squadron unlikely to achieve initial operational capability at Williamtown before 2020 and subsequent squadrons at one-year intervals through to 2023, the availability of RAAF classic Hornets in significant numbers before 2021 is uncertain.
If bought by Canada, the former RAAF aircraft would be absorbed into the Canadian fleet quite easily – either as a source of spares or to spread the budgeted flying hours over a larger fleet – as both fleets completed similar upgrade programs in the past decade resulting in common sensor and avionics capabilities which are still operationally relevant. But with both countries’ Hornet airframes built in the 1980s, the youngest airframe available will be nearly 35 years old by the time any transfer of RAAF Hornets to Canada could occur. Canada once operated a fleet of 138 CF-18s, but through attrition and force downsizing, now operates fewer than 80 aircraft.
The Reuters report claims that by buying ex-RAAF Hornets, Canada would save money by avoiding the need to absorb a new training and sustainment system. But any savings will likely be offset to a large degree by the maintenance burden of operating 30+ year old airframes. Further, while the RAAF jets may extend the operational life of the Canadian fleet, the need to replace these aircraft within a decade still remains.
Official comment has been sought from the Australian Department of Defence.