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As a decision in Canada’s Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP) nears, Boeing is pulling out all the stops to convince Canada that the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is the right future fighter, over Lockheed Martin’s F-35A and the Saab Gripen E.
Much of the pitch rests on Boeing’s long history of doing business with Canada’s aerospace industry and the economic windfall it promises will accompany the replacement of aging CF-188 Hornets with the larger, more capable F/A-18E/F Block III.
Boeing is promising an influx of work and funding to companies of all sizes in every Canadian province, Maria Laine, the company’s vice president of international business development, said during a Nov. 9 media day at the St. Louis plant where Super Hornets are built. An economic impact study performed by Canadian technology market analysis firm Doyletech showed Boeing’s Super Hornet offering would create 250,000 jobs and infuse the Canadian economy with a total $61 billion over the aircraft’s service life.
“Our key competitor is not guaranteeing that same package,” Laine said. “They won’t guarantee it and even what they think they can do on a best-effort basis creates at least 100,000 less jobs and only one-third of the economic value. So, think about that. We have three times the economic benefit impact on Canadian defense and aerospace and the broader ecosystem, with what we’re delivering.”
Under FFCP, Canada plans to purchase 88 new aircraft to replace its CF-188s at a cost of between $15 billion and $19 billion. Sustaining the new jets over their 30- to 40-year service life promises billions more in annual work for the winning bidder.
Boeing’s proposal is designed to meet Industrial and Technological Benefits (ITB) obligations, in which the company signs a binding agreement to invest up to 100 percent of the contract value in the Canadian economy.
“The magnitude of that program, the number of aircraft, the fact that it is associated with a 100 percent ITB program… that has profound implications for the future of the aerospace and defense industry in Canada,” said Laine. “It’s not a decision that should be taken lightly and it’s something where you really want to make sure that you have a trusted partner to work with.”
Boeing is also hammering the relative affordability of the Super Hornet versus the F-35, which is notoriously expensive to fly and maintain.
“The F-18 is the most affordable multirole combat aircraft to operate in the U.S. inventory, significantly less expensive than our key U.S. competitor,” said Laine.
She highlighted the “wonderful, enduring partnership” between Boeing and Canada since 1919, when Bill Boeing and a co-pilot delivered 60 letters by air mail between Seattle and Vancouver in a home-built float plane. From that humble, yet momentous, beginning, the relationship has grown to where Boeing now spends $2.3 billion each year in the country, Laine said. Adding in the job impact of 1,500 Boeing employees and 20,000 supporting the company’s supply chain in Canada, that figure jumps to $5.3 billion every year, she said.
“Right now, when you look at the Boeing footprint in Canada, when you buy Boeing, you’re really buying Canadian,” she added. “Every single commercial aircraft Boeing develops and produces has Canadian parts, Canadian-produced components. We’ve got a robust supply chain with over 500 companies spread all across Canada from coast to coast to coast.”
While Lockheed touts the F-35 as a “fifth-generation fighter” with unparalleled stealth and sensor technology, among many other futuristic refinements, that capability comes with a significant cost to procure, operate, and maintain. The unit price for a conventional take-off and landing F-35A has dropped precipitously in recent years to about $80 million. Boeing says a Block III Super Hornet comes in just below that.
But that is only the cost to buy, not to operate or maintain the aircraft. The current cost per flight hour for the Super Hornet is around US$18,000. The F-35A’s cost per flight hour sat at US$33,600 in fiscal year 2020. The OEM is currently working to reduce the operating cost to US$30,000 by 2023, and US$25,000 by 2025. In mid-May 2020 during a virtual conference hosted by Goldman Sachs, Lockheed executive VP and CFO, Ken Possenriede, said the $25,000 per flight hour is in 2012 dollars, “so we have to escalate that to some extent to get to current year dollars.”
Jennifer Splaingard, vice president and program manager for the Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler, said that beside the cost differential, Boeing’s jet offers significant capability for multiple combat missions and has room for future technological growth.
“The Block III Super Hornet is the most capable aircraft we’ve built to date,” Splaingard said. “It brings a few things: survivability and lethality. It also brings networking and longevity. The longevity piece not only ties to the airframe life — this is a 10,000-hour airframe that can last, depending on your flight program, upward of 30 years — but the longevity piece relates to the networking piece; that has to do with the open mission system processor that we’re putting in here, allowing capability upgrades well into the future really easily.
“The Super Hornet brings all of that to the table at an affordable price point,” she added.
The U.S. Navy’s Block II Super Hornets already have undergone a service-life extension program to increase their lifespan from 6,000 hours to 10,000 hours. Boeing learned from that effort and was able to “productionize” the process so that all Block III aircraft roll off the St. Louis line as 10,000-hour airframes, Splaingard said.
It is up to a particular customer whether their aircraft have conformal fuel tanks that sit above the wings aft of the cockpit — a Block III upgrade the Navy has so far declined to pursue. All new-build Block III Super Hornets are plumbed to receive the new tanks.
“That can be tailored by the country depending on the mission sets they have and what environment they are taking off and landing their airplane in,” said Splaingard.
Boeing is building two Super Hornets a month at its St. Louis factory, and has the ability to ramp up to four a month — which would happen if “everything is a go,” Splaingard said. That would mean not only Canada, but Finland would also have to choose the F/A-18 and EA-18G Growler, as Germany has already done, she said.
“If all of those come to fruition and the timing is such that we need to increase the rate . . . then economies of scale will be there,” she said.
Finland is expected to decide on its future fighter to replace its legacy F-18 Hornets in December. That US$11 billion competition also pits Boeing against Lockheed and Saab, as well as Dassault’s Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon offered by a consortium of Airbus, Leonardo, and BAE Systems, said Laine. Boeing is also going after an opportunity to provide India with Super Hornets that the country will fly from its aircraft carrier.
While Boeing pushes the Super Hornet, Canada continues to pay into the F-35 program to maintain its seat at the table of nations that are participating in the U.S.-led development program. A July payment of US$71.7 million to the U.S. brought Canada’s total investment in the F-35 to US$613 million since 1997. The government has said that the investment brought US$2 billion in contracts to Canadian businesses.
As director of fighter programs in Canada for Boeing Defense, Jim Barnes has been advocating the Super Hornet to Ottawa for years, and is no less convinced that Boeing still holds the upper hand — if given a fair appraisal by the government.
“We have a very compelling offer that is on the table,” said Barnes. “We think the Government of Canada is going to have a very tough decision because we’ve got next-generation capabilities with the Block III. . . . We can operate and acquire that aircraft at a very affordable price, and we’ve got 100 percent guaranteed economic benefits. That offer, we believe, is going to be very tough to beat. The government will have something very serious to think about.”