Estimated reading time 15 minutes, 24 seconds.
In a presentation to the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in March, Gen Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), was asked his thoughts on Canada’s future fighter capability. He deftly sidestepped the implied question about which fighter might be better, politely declining to “weigh in on the fighter debate.” But he did offer his perspective on the general fighter capabilities NORAD requires for its threat response – long range, endurance to loiter, significant weapons capacity, and the ability to rapidly share information.
It’s a capability list two of his predecessors can appreciate. Admirals Timothy Keating and William Gortney both served as commanders of USNORTHCOM and NORAD (November 2004 to March 2007 and December 2014 to May 2016, respectively), but neither is reticent about which fighter jet the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) should acquire to replace its fleet of CF-18 legacy Hornets.
Now retired, both consult for Boeing. Each has over 5,000 hours flying off the decks of aircraft carriers in the A-7E Corsair II, FA-18 A-model Hornet, and in Gortney’s case, the FA-18E Block I Super Hornet. Having led the unique binational command, in which the NORAD commander operates inside both the U.S. and Canadian chains of command, they appreciate what is at stake when RCAF pilots and aircraft are assigned to quick reaction alert duty.
With VanHerck’s response priorities in mind, both believe the Boeing-built F/A-18E/F Block III Super Hornet, more so than the Lockheed Martin F-35A or Saab Gripen E, is best suited for Canada’s NORAD role.
Both Russia and China are seeking greater access to Arctic resources. Russian military muscle is on display more frequently, in particular no-notice launches of cruise-missile carrying bombers to the edges of the North American airspace.
While the Canadian fighter jet is a multi-mission platform, the Two Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership with the U.S. and the distinct NORAD mission was a particular focus of RCAF briefings to industry and media before a request for proposals was issued in July 2020. In fact, meeting the Two Eyes requirements was among the reasons both Dassault and Airbus cited when they withdrew from the future fighter capability competition.
In his Ottawa conference address and in other recent presentations, VanHerck has spoken of building domain awareness, information dominance and, ultimately, decision superiority to provide commanders with greater “left of launch” options to deter threats or quickly de-escalate crises. Last year, NORAD/USNORTHCOM launched a program called Pathfinder to modernize its data ecosystem, including aggregating data from existing systems that might previously have been stovepiped or overlooked.
As NORAD commanders faced with a QRA notice, “we are agnostic as to the plane and we are agnostic as to the pilots,” observed Keating. A commander will respond with whichever platform is best positioned and equipped to counter the threat. But when a fighter launches, “they’ve got to get there quickly and be able to stay there a long time.” And, at times, they want Russian aircraft to see NORAD fighters are carrying a lot of ordnance.
The unknown capacity of Russian cruise missiles on out of area deployments – nuclear or conventionally tipped – means targeting the source of the missiles. “You have to go after the archer, not go after the arrow,” Gortney noted.
“To do that particular mission, you need trucks – airplanes that can go long range, long distance, stay on scene for a long time, with very capable radar, and carry lots of ordnance, lots of air-to-air missiles,” he said. “From that perspective, of the three contenders, we think the Block III Super Hornet is capable of doing that for the best value.”
Among the RCAF’s high level mandatory requirements for its next-generation fighter is sensor and data integration. The importance of being able to gather and share data with other air, sea, and ground-based assets is already a vital capability that will become even more critical as the U.S. develops its Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) framework, what the Canadian Armed Forces is calling pan-domain C2.
Whatever Canada acquires must “be able to sense in that [Arctic] environment” and be interoperable with the wider NORAD weapon system of air assets and ground control, Gortney stressed. Lockheed Martin has highlighted the enhanced sensor integration, data fusion, and information sharing capabilities of the F-35, but he argued the Super Hornet’s AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar and long-range Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor, now integrated into the nose of the centerline external tank, provide a formidable sensing and data sharing capability when combined with the Block III’s Distributed Targeting Processor-Networked (DTP-N) computer system.
“If the bombers are being escorted [by fighters], we may not want to transmit from our capable AESA radar, but we still want to be able to search, and that requires a long-range IRST. That way you can do a passive intercept, and [still] positively identify the threat.”
Equally important, both Keating and Gortney returned several times to the need for a NORAD platform “that can be easily upgraded to take whatever the technical solution is.”
“That is one of the real advantages of the Block III … It’s very upgradeable,” said Gortney.
In his years flying F-18s, from the Block 5 A-model Hornet as a young lieutenant to the Block I Super Hornet, “I never once flew the same model of F-18,” he observed. “Every time I went to sea, it was a completely new airplane based on capability put into it or weapons added to the airplane.”
Systems like AESA radar, which was introduced on the Block II Super Hornet, offer a black box “that we can rapidly add capability to … faster than any other airplane that the [U.S.] Navy maintains. And the Canadians would be able to benefit from that,” he added, noting the USN will likely be operating the 10,000-hour Super Hornet airframes for another 20 to 30 years.
While the debate around fighter engine reliability has simmered throughout the competition, Keating argued the Super Hornet’s twin engines do provide a distinct advantage for the NORAD mission. Both he and Gortney, who refer to one another by their callsigns, Timbo and Shortney, “started in single engine airplanes” and each has between 2,500 and 3,000 hours flying those airframes from carriers. But in the austere and inhospitable Arctic, a backup motor is needed as a precaution.
“It [was] of great reassurance to us, when we [were] sending folks up there, that they have two motors,” he said. “Most of the airplanes that everyone is flying in the world today have reliable engines. Two of them are better then one. Period.”
For NORAD exercises in the Arctic, one of Gortney’s demands was a detailed briefing of the search-and-rescue plan. “If I [was] not satisfied that we could adequately and safely operate and on a bad day quickly be able to pull our airmen out of that environment should they go down,” the exercise was scrapped, he said. “Having reliability in whatever platform and redundant capability on a bad day is absolutely critical.”
Both Keating and Gortney also flagged the cost of operating a Block III Super Hornet, which Boeing claims to be around $18,000 per flight hour, well below the current cost of operating the F-35. While NORAD commanders “didn’t have to be overly concerned with how much it was costing to respond to the Russians, everybody has got a budget,” said Keating.
“The relatively low [operating costs] provided by the Super Hornet make it a desirable asset for the folks who are using the platform to feel free to use it liberally. We don’t hold off on launch because, wow, this is going to cost a lot of money. We launch.”
Ownership costs is a central concern for any commander, observed Gortney: “This is coming from the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, where I had to pay for it out of my budget.” The USN is buying and maintaining both the F-35 and Super Hornet because “we need both platforms. But when it comes to value, the Super Hornet has given us the best value as we move forward.”
Said Keating: “The Super Hornet can carry more, it can fly longer in terms of time and longer in terms of distance, and those are factors that are of surpassing importance to the battle room commander, the fleet commander or the four-star. ‘What can I launch that can carry a lot of bombs, a lot of missiles, can go a long way, can stay there for a while, and has an electronic suite that is state of the art?’ That is what the Block III gives you.”
Though it doesn’t attract the same attention as stealth technology or data fusion, the tactical tanking is a feature unique to the Super Hornet at the moment. From a “buddy store” on the centerline, one Super Hornet can refuel others mid-air to extend the range or on-station time of a mission.
“When you put [a Super Hornet] with another that has what we call five wet – four external tanks plus the centerline — you can take one that doesn’t have the tank and extend its range 300 to 400 nautical miles,” said Gortney. “That is a huge warfighting enhancement that is frequently overlooked.”
Above all else, however, both admirals highlighted the ease of transitioning from the current CF-188 Hornet to the Block III Super Hornets, and not just for the pilots – maintenance and infrastructure requirements would remain similar to the legacy fleet.
“It is an established platform,” noted Keating. “It’s an open book test; no hiccups, no, ‘oh my goodness, we didn’t know that,’ which comes with every new airplane … It is as reliable as anything we have ever built and flown.”
Gortney, who transitioned from the F-18C to the Block I Super Hornet, noted, “There are a few additional systems you need to learn, and it handles a bit differently because it is a bigger, heavier airplane,” but the transition of a full squadron can be completed in a short timeframe.
“When we transitioned a squadron in the Navy from the legacy airplane, the F-18C to the Super Hornet, they came off deployment on the F-18C, … accepted their new airplanes, and the next time they went to sea [it was] in a Super Hornet. Same aircrew, same maintainers.”
The next six months could be significant for Boeing and the Block III Super Hornet. The U.S. Navy, which has two flight test aircraft with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron Nine, the Vampires, at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California, anticipates acceptance of the first operational Block IIIs later this year. And Canada, Finland, and Switzerland could all reach decisions on their respective fighter jet competitions.
Keating, who served 38 years, and Gortney, who retired after 39 years, have experienced the evolution of the Hornet, from when McDonnell Douglas rolled out the first A-model in September 1978, through various modifications to the Boeing-built Block II Super Hornet flying today. While they remained agnostic about which fighter jets responded to QRA missions during their command of NORAD, they believe in the aircraft and have little doubt which fighter should fill the RCAF role for the next several decades.