The best option for Canada? Former NORAD commanders’ perspectives on the next-generation fighter

Avatar for Chris ThatcherBy Chris Thatcher | June 8, 2021

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.  

Boeing Photo

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.”

Meeting Requirements

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.

Jamie Hunter Photo

“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.

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43 Comments

    1. Nope, it’s clear that this is nothing more than American propaganda, just like the F-35.

  1. Aviation Week recently published some negative news on the F18 SH regarding fuel range and loitering endurance.
    The U.S. Navy is considering removing conformal fuel tanks, or CFTs, from the Block III upgrade package for its F/A-18E/F Super Hornets after discovering various issues with them during testing. Deciding not to pursue these tanks, which are designed to extend the Super Hornet’s range even without it having to carry drop tanks in place of other underwing stores, could have significant ramifications for the service’s future tactical aviation plans. It could also impact the export prospects for these jets, as well.
    The Navy told Aviation Week that unspecified “technical, structural, and sustainment” problems had arisen in tests of the CFTs as part of the Block III upgrade effort.
    Once again, this puts the Gripen E at the top of the list for Canada’s fighter replacement.

    1. That was due to carrier requirements, something that would not affect Canadian usage.

  2. The Saab is best for Canada. It’s ability to take off in 900 meters of hwy and operate in extreme cold. Along with being able to buy 250 Saabs for the price of 88 F35s and run the for a fraction of the cost is huge. And what would win ! 4 saabs v 1 f35 !

    1. If what you say is true, the European, fighter is more suited, hands down, for Canada, where climate dictates the best fighter, instead of politics, reliability is at the top of the requirements list, in my mind.

    2. Agreed. The Saabs would be the wisest choice but, you’re not going to hear that from Boeing consultants who are already biased in their opinions before even seeing the competition. Saab is a much better deal for Canada in the long run and I hear alot more positive reviews about it than the other two combined.

    3. The problem i see is the range capability difference between Super Hornet and Gripen E. Declared max range for Gripen E is 1300 Km, declared ranged for Super Hornet is 2346 Km. Lets not forget that Canada split on 6 time zones and from parallel 49 to 80. Our main task is to patrol a huge airspace (second largest). Therefore, the plane with the greatest range and payload capacity should be considered. The ability to land in nordic environment wont be a game changer as the 2 main air force bases are not in artic and this artic is actually melting.

      Have a good day sir.

      1. I don’t know where you got 1300km because they ferry range for the Gripen-E on Wikipedia is 4000km. On the other hand, the Super Hornet is down to have a ferry range of only 3,330km. Where did you get the 1300km from because that seems impossible. In any case, it’s clear that the JAS-39E has a ferry range of 700km more than the F/A-18E. Anyone can check Wikipedia and see that in correct. This makes your assertion impossible at best and dishonest at worst. Which is it?

    4. With experienced pilots, probably the F35’s would be killing the Saab’s somewhere around 10:1.

  3. This could have been a fascinating article but it’s such blatant PR drivel that I couldn’t get through the whole thing.

    If we buy the Super Hornet, we’ll be the only ones flying them in 20 years. The US and Australia will replace theirs with Gen 6 fighters and we’ll be buying their leftovers to keep ours from falling out of the sky.

    1. It couldn’t have been a fascinating article because no matter who writes it, the Gripen is still out best choice and it’s not even close.

  4. I think the logic of what they said speaks for itself. The RCAF received the first CF-18 in 1983. They are still operating, almost 40 years later. Does Canada need stealth, with all of the headaches associated? (and no, I don’t work for Boeing)

    1. No, it really doesn’t. Why would you want an outdated cold war-era cruciform/rear elevator design when the modern taillessdelta/front canard configuration has proven itself to be superior? I’m afraid that you need to also look at how the F/A-18E is not really a multirole fighter anymore because the USN has no need of a carrier-based air combatant. Nothing that flies can threaten a US carrier because they’re surrounded by AEGIS ships. The F/A-18E is now anti-ship and coastal assault attack aircraft. Against a plane designed primarily for aerial combat, it would be just as toasted as the F-35.

  5. Why are they spreading so obvious lies? Yes they know, so its lies, not ignorance.
    The longest range and loitering, the fastest, the most upgradable, the most powerful avionics and the lowest operating cost(1/4 of SH) is Gripen E. Single engine is better than multiple. The latter well known since decades. “Double engines is double trouble”. The single engine Gripen have never had a crash du to the engine. Good luck to be more safe! Nothing unknown? All the upgrades of the avionics? The Gripen aerodynsmics is the same since more than 40 years. Unknown? Unique refuelling? Rafale have been buddy refulling for a long time now. It’s not a hard problem to solve in the case of Gripen E if that would be a demand. Thy do they bring arguments that’s not in the demands? Cant they fulfill the military demands?

    1. Arne. Unfortunately, you have to expect the lies and the ignorance about other options because Canada very much remains a political, economic, military and cultural satellite of the United States. This also means that long-standing personal relationships are involved, e.g. between those in the Canadian military establishment and the Pentagon, the USAF, and the U.S. aviation industry. As usual, the factors that drive the Canadian government’s decision on this won’t, in fact, be comparative performance, suitability or cost but rather Canada-US politics and personal relationships. At the end of the day, the true mission statement of the Canadian military establishment is: “Never do anything that will piss off the Pentagon and the American military industrial complex.” Why? Because Canada has been largely relying on American military power to protect the whole continent for over 70 years.

      This, by the way, also explains why Canada has no industrial capability to produce its own multi-role fighter. Just as the Americans (Boeing and the Trump administration) recently managed to put Bombardier out of the commercial aviation business, they also succeeded in ending Canada’s fighter/bomber plane industry (Avro CF-105 Arrow) in 1959.

      According to this script, Canada will buy the Block III Super Hornet . The grotesque irony of that decision will be that, Boeing, its maker with Donald Trump’s help successfully removed Bombardier as a commercial aviation competitor through unfair trade practices only a few years ago.

      1. Well, while I believe that this may be a part of it, we’re still operating Leopard tanks instead of Abrams. The Pentagon didn’t bar an eyelid Blue did they care when we chose a European design for our navy so I don’t think that it makes as much of a difference as you might think. The Americans showed that they’re not the great friends that they used to be when Boeing did what they did to Bombardier. This is called damage control. If Trudeau selects a Boeing product, the next election will be his last. He’s quite aware of this.

  6. Block 111 super hornets, with dual engines goes without saying, the aircraft that should be anticipated to be used and deployed by Our Canadian forces.

  7. Neither plane is what Canada ‘needs’. We would never operate anywhere overseas without US/Allied support, so it doesn’t really matter which one we choose, both will be inter-operable.
    I like the F-35 because it gives us access to the latest tech, and everybody else will be using it for decades.
    But, the one place the plane we choose will matter is in the NORAD interceptor role. Here, the Super Hornet has to be the most effective platform, both from capabilities and cost-effectiveness standpoint (twin-engine; has the F-35 resolved its comm problems in the high North?). None of the F-35’s assets matter in a high-altitude, long-range interceptor role, and the Super Hornet is cheaper to buy and fly.
    Honestly I’m torn overall. The F-35 is the way of the future and our Allies, but let’s face it – no Canadian gov’t will ever use its ‘first-night-of-the-war capabilities anyway (for political reasons). So, if the only relevant operationally distinguishing factor is the Super Hornet’s superior interceptor capabilities, then perhaps that is the deciding factor.

    1. @mark morrison, I’ve deployed 3 times with the CF-18, twice overseas and once in the north. Happy to inform you not once did we need American/Allied support. We did our own thing. Your comment detracts from our efforts, but, technically, when an Air Force deploys overseas it needs an airbase, so sure…you can consider that “Allied support”.

      1. Really? All the intelligence gathering, AWACS, EW and SEAD was done organically by RCAF assets with no joint/combined support?

        Op Mobile/Impact we’re not like that, care to share which AO you were able to do that?

    2. I can’t believe you wrote that on June 9, 2021. The F-35 is as dead as a door nail. Even the USAF and the Marines are running away from the billion-dollar fiasco.

  8. Gripen E is a great option: low RCS, supercruise capability, good range, cheap… I hope it wins!

  9. Biased much? Both work for Boeing, they aren’t going to advocate for any other vehicle than what Boeing is offering.

    No sorry, the Super Hornet, no matter what version is not the best for Canada

    Gripen E/F is what is best

  10. Isn’t Boeing the company that tried to bankrupt the Canadian Bombadier company? Buy from them? No way! Gripen on is in our price bracket. Made for the north.

    1. Agreed. But we both know the Canadian government (not just this one but any other in history thus far) will hold its nose, do its duty to Washington, and buy an American plane. In this case, the Boeing.

  11. @Nicholas- wow, didn’t realise we had that much in flight refuelling capacity, and I guess I missed the AWACS competition we held…

  12. No one seems to recognize that within a decade, very long range missiles launched from a stable platform will be the norm. Along with pilotless attack drones. The Saab aircraft will be more than do the job, especially if we put twice as many in the air.

    1. Agreed. For the same kind of money as would be spent on the F-35 or Block III, we could have twice as many Comet-armed Gripen Es. Moscow and Beijing wouldn’t be happy about that.

  13. I guess it’s not surprising that two Boeing employees would think that Super Hornet is the answer. Earlier Tony Ledsham points out that the CF-18 has served us well for the past 40 years since 1982, so therefore Super Hornet is the logical choice. We’re not talking about the past 40 years, we’re talking about the next 40 years and Super Hornet won’t be there, except in small orphan fleets in Canada and Australia, who will be on the hook for any upgrades that will surely be required. Super Hornet without confomal tanks (CFT) is a non-starter and the USN is very likely to cancel CFT due to technical issues, particularly onboard ship. Our current CF-18s outperform SH in many areas. As for Saab, they don’t know what they don’t know about intel and the requirement for literally up-to-the-minute data to load into mission data files to ensure effectiveness and, more importantly, survival on the battlefield. They are not members of the Five Eyes intelligence network and will never have access to that data. I was part of the CF-18 program from evaluation through initial implementation and operational service. My only aim is the best fighter for Canada and Canadian industry for the next 40 years and Super Hornet and Gripen do not qualify.

    1. You wrote all that on June 11, 2021? The F-35 is dead as a door nail. Not in 40 years; right now. In 2021. Didn’t you read the Pentagon press release?

  14. Build the Arrow it was the only aircraft designed for Canada’s North and employ our own people

    1. Unfortunately, the Arrow was designed for bomber interception which isn’t really a thing anymore.

  15. The CF-18 Hornet was chosen back in 1982 from seven different aircraft and in my opinion it was the best choice by a WIDE margin. At this point most of our aircraft have been completely rebuilt with 5th gen cockpits, link-16, and scan array radar sets. I’ve seen footage of an F-18 having mock combat with an SU-30 with vectored thrust, forward canards and all the latest tech. Out of four fights the hornet lost one and won three. I would like to point out that the latest Gripens did not fair as well in close combat with SU-30s. But no matter how hard we try we can’t keep those old air frames going for much longer.

    While the F-18 is faster and more agile than the Super Hornet, all pilots that I listened to, said that they preferred the Super Hornet. It’s stealth and sensors allowed it to sneak up on other planes while it had all kinds of detection methods to detect adversaries. In mock combat over 70% of kills are made without the other plane knowing what happened. And the Super Hornet has a radar cross section of two square meters. Block III can get that down to one.

    While it dose have a high operational cost all pilots that flew an F-35 said that they would never want to go back to the 4th gen fighters they flew before. With the excellent stealth and perfect situational awareness it’s managed to rack up a 21 to 1 kill ratio at Red Flag.

    If it was up to me I would either go with the F-35 or a mix of all three. While the cost per plane would go up, it would reduce our operational cost over time. Also future air combat will be less like a boxing match and more like a football game.

    That said I’m pretty sure we won’t see any new fighter jets under this current government.

    1. NEVER listen to what active pilots have to say because they are. TOLD what to say. They are soldiers following orders. No pilot EVER says anything bad about the planes that their site force flies. You should know that.

    2. A mix of all three? Just how rich do you think we are? Running several models is prohibitively expensive. That’s why the multirole fighter was developed.

  16. No matter which plane we buy, we will be flying it until late 2050s. Right now US, USA and Australia are getting 5th gen aircrafts. Hos potent will be a Super Hornet/Gripen/Rafale/Eurofighter in 30 years? On top of that, it has be be low cost enough to run because we do not have a low cost dedicated helicopter platform for ground attack such as AH-6.
    The problem is not only the procurement, its the military budget itself. We do not pay enough.

    1. 30 years?? Read the Pentagon press release. The F-35 is already dead. Good riddance.

      But I agree with you that we need to spend a lot more on defence.

      1. I also agree but we also need to spend smarter than we do. Look at our submarines, we could have bought superior Gotland-class subs from Sweden for far less than we paid on those horrible Upholder-class subs that we renamed the Victoria-class. We should collaborate with Sweden far more because their climate requirements match ours and everything they make is advanced, effective and inexpensive.

  17. There’s no question that the Saab JAS-39E Gripen is our best option. I see people who possibly mean well talking about the need for two engines. Meanwhile, no Gripen has ever suffered an engine failure in almost 25 years. I did the math and a pilot would be 20x more likely to die in a so-called “safe” CF-18 Hornet. People don’t realise that we’re talking about aeronautical engineering here. The more colloquial term to it is “rocket science”. Isn’t it amazing how do many people think that they understand rocket science based on layman’s experience?

  18. The SH carrying the same max payload of a Gripen will have a better range and thrust to weight ratio, with the advantage of an extra engine. On air to air mode, carrying two AMRAAM under the engines, two more under pylons and two Aim-9X on the tip of the wings will have the same stealth frontal squad profile than an F-35 carrying 4 AMRAAM internally and two Aim-9X on pylons, but for a much cheaper price, keeping also the advantage of having an extra engine.

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