Op-ed: Canada’s next-generation fighter aircraft

AvatarBy Skies Magazine | March 29, 2021

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 52 seconds.

Op-ed by William E. Gortney and Timothy J. Keating

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a unique, 63-year-old defense relationship between Canada and the United States. This organization, in close collaboration with a multitude of binational partners, is responsible for safeguarding the sovereign airspaces of both countries. The outstanding men and women charged with this task have performed brilliantly in the execution of their duties, and they must continue to have the resources they need to meet the demands and threats of the day. Much of these resources are due for modernization, and close Canada-U.S. collaboration will be required to ensure cost-effective, relevant, and effective solutions are obtained.  

Boeing is proposing the Block III Super Hornet, the CF-18E, to replace Canada’s current, aging CF-18 fleet. Boeing Photo

Canada’s current Future Fighter Capability Project (FFCP) is a timely example of this much needed modernization. FFCP is expected to play out in the coming months, and it is critically important that Canada selects a fighter replacement that can deliver on the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF’s) long standing history of excellence. Three aircraft remain in the competition: the Boeing Block III Super Hornet, Saab Gripen E, and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. 

Canada’s effort to choose a new fighter aircraft to replace its aging CF-18 fleet is one of the largest procurement programs in the nation’s history. Fielding a fighter aircraft with the right balance of survivability, counter and blended stealth capabilities, self-protection, weapons capacity, and range at an affordable cost are the key to the fighter capability in any country. As previous NORAD commanders who are familiar with the capabilities of the three aircraft under consideration, we believe the combination of advanced capabilities at a lower cost make the Block III Super Hornet the best choice for the RCAF, and the best value for the Canadian taxpayers.  

The Super Hornet is compatible with the RCAF’s existing pilot training, as well as 65 percent of its current infrastructure and all of the weapons in its current inventory. Boeing Image

Early in June 2020, the U.S. Navy unveiled the Block III Super Hornet as its predominant multi-role fighter for its “Global Power Projection” and air-dominance mandate. With a 10,000-hour airframe, enhanced network capability, and advanced data link and long-wave Infrared Search and Track, the new variant of the F/A-18 brings next-level synergy to its capabilities. In fact, this robust, twin-engine Super Hornet is ideally suited for all Canadian military missions, at home and abroad — especially in Canada’s High Arctic. Additionally, the aircraft is capable of refueling other Super Hornets, serving as a force multiplier in large countries with limited resources. The Super Hornet is also compatible with the RCAF’s existing pilot training, as well as 65 percent of its current infrastructure and all of the weapons in its current inventory, providing for a low-risk transition.

With no planned retirement, Block III Super Hornets will undergo regular upgrades and modernization programs to ensure they continue to outperform all adversaries and competitors for the next 40 years. Boeing will support the U.S. Navy, Australia, Kuwait, and Germany — which recently announced its intent to add Super Hornets and Growlers to its force structure. Other prospective partner-nations include Finland, Switzerland, India, and others, which could result in a global fleet of well over 1,000 next-gen Super Hornets.

F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet test jet takes off on its first flight at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Boeing Photo

The Block III Super Hornet is the smartest choice for Canada to fulfill its NORAD missions as it looks to modernize its fighter force. The aircraft is ideally suited for Canada’s defense priorities; it is fully interoperable with the nation’s allies, works with a large degree of its existing infrastructure, and provides an affordable, low-risk transition to the RCAF’s next fighter. 

William E. Gortney is a retired admiral from the U.S. Navy following 39 years of commissioned service, during which he commanded at every level in the Navy. In addition to his most recent role as commander, North American Defense Command, and commander, United States Northern Command, Gortney has also flown over 5,360 mishap-free flight hours and completed 1,265 carrier-arrested landings. He continues to serve in both public and private capacities. 

Retired admiral Timothy J. Keating served for 38 years in the U.S. Navy, including his most recent three years as the commander of the United States Pacific Command, headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii. Keating has also held command positions at the Naval Strike Warfare Center, a Carrier Air Wing, and an F-18 Squadron. Currently, Keating is the CEO of Keating Global, LLC and vice chair of the board of directors for the U.S. Naval Institute. Both Gortney and Keating are currently independent consultants for Boeing Defense, Space and Security.

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  1. Fully agreed. This is an excellent weapon system, twin engine aircraft which could fly autonomously over Arctic, better for Canada than than F-35.

    1. No way Boeing wins this competition or any in the near future! CSeries tariff wounds still fresh on the minds of this government. I think Boeing set back their chances of any contracts with a Canadian government for years if not a decade to come! Foolish Boeing blunder…tariffs was a tactical win but a huge strategic lose. Lol.

  2. With due respect to the authors above, sorry gentlemen but I see this as a US sales pitch. In my considerable research on the topic, the best fighter by far for Canadian operations is the Saab Gripen E.
    Given the length of service necessitated by our Canadian method of procurement, the F-18 SH will be
    obsolete twenty years before we are politically motivated to replace it. The Gripen E is easily modified by software updates and is totally compatible with NORAD and NATO operations. The RCAF has, in the past, operated with their own equipment and had no difficulty operating with US or other NATO forces. I was part of those operations. Tactical, communication and weapon commonality are built into the Gripen fighter. It is the right choice for the time.

    1. Hi John,
      Can you elaborate on your considerable research? Looking for facts please. I don’t buy the “stealth is obsolete” posture of SAAB, nor the fact that Gripen is easily modifiable. That will only roll the wheels so far.

  3. I totally agree with Mr Bradshaw, it would be a smart and diligent decision for once by the Canadian government as long as the RCAF also is happy with that choice.

  4. Gripen, the smart choice. Saab is a company willing to lay their cards face up on the table and tell Canada exactly what the industrial benefits will be and how it will benefit Canada. Cheaper to purchase, maintain and fly. Built for northern climates. Quick turnaround, easily upgraded software. Canada will be able to customize this fighter to give it a unique Canadian flavour.

  5. Boeing is not going to win this contract! Canadian government or Canadians have not forgotten the CSeries tariffs. How Boeing thought they can do that and not destroy their chances for future business from Canadian government procurement is beyond shortsighted. Then letting Airbus gain control of CSeries shows how out of touch Boeing management is. A strategic blunder to say the least. Saab Gripen is a better choice anyway. Canada is better off by aligning aerospace industry with Europeans.

  6. John,

    It is my understanding the Super Hornet has undergone numerous software updates since entering service with the USN and RAAF. Given the fact the Super Hornet will continue to be the backbone of US naval aviation (alongside the F35C) as well as the RAAF (alongside the F35A) for decades to come, I am certain the capability of the platform will continue to be upgraded and evolve as threat capabilities evolve. This can already be seen with the release of the Block 3 SH which has already entered service with the USN, and is the variant being offered to Canada.

    The bottom line is that Canada needs a jet which can seamlessly integrate with our allies. For whatever reason, I have seen numerous articles and comments on this website that advocate against an American made solution, and I cannot understand why anyone would think it is a good idea to isolate ourselves further from our closest and most important ally.

    The Saab Gripen E represents the worst option for Canada in terms of mission effectiveness. I believe the only reason it remains under consideration is due to the politicized nature of the military procurement process, and the benefits Saab has offered to allow the aircraft to be built in Canada.

    Perhaps the article above is a sales pitch, but I still believe Canada would be much better off with the combat proven F35A or F18E vice an unproven jet built by a country that doesn’t belong to either NATO or NORAD.

    1. Saab not being part of NATO or NORAD has nothing to do with capability. The key is making sure the Gripen communications equipment and software work seamlessly within NATO/NORAD. People make this out to be more difficult than it really is. US propaganda to hurt Saabs chances and keep all their allies buy US equipment. Gripen is fully capable of using all weapons in US and European inventory! Not sure if people noticed but Sweden has similar operating conditions as Canada! Plus Gripen has the ability to operate from road airstrips with minimal crew is unmatched.

      1. Sorry Ken, but it has everything to do with capability. I would argue interoperability with our closest allies is actually much more complicated and difficult than people think, otherwise why would Dassault and Airbus withdraw their Rafale and Eurofighter aircraft from our competition, specifically citing an inability to meet NORAD security requirements?

        Additionally, how can you be so certain the platform can use all weapons in US and European inventories? What about new weapons being developed? As threats to both NORAD and NATO (and by extension, Canada) evolve, who is going to pay for these expensive software upgrades? Are we going to be able to afford any testing of these systems to determine their effectiveness on our own? Or should we perhaps seek to leverage the combined resources of our friends to aid us in that task?

        The bottom line is the Gripen E represents exactly what everyone already knows it to be…nothing more than a cheap solution that prioritizes cost and industrial benefits over mission effectiveness and providing the best platform for our pilots.

        Our cold weather environment is also not something unique to Canada. Last I checked, both Norway and the United States (Alaska) have fairly harsh weather conditions and they seem to have no issue operating their F35s in that climate. The USN also happens to operate the Super Hornet in just about every climate known on this Earth, and that platform has performed exceptionally.

        Lastly, if operating from highways was one of your concerns (which seems like a logistical impossibility when it comes to refueling and/or rearming), perhaps we can ask the USN how the Super Hornet fares with short distance landings and takeoffs?

        1. If Saab can’t meet NORAD security requirments then the USN all ready is in deep shit, since they rely on Saab equipment in key systems on their CVs. The Gripen is not cheap to buy, it is almost as costly to procure as the F-35 or the SH. The big differences is that it’s designed to be low maintenance as one of the main design criterias from the start of the first Gripen program. The new Gripen E/F have design requirments to be cheaper to operate and still out perform the present C/D version in service in all aspects.

  7. The only thing I would add to what Mr. Bradshaw wrote is the question of Boeing’s ability to deliver aircraft on time, on budget. Consider what is happening with Boeing’s K-46 Tanker Aircraft or the issues with the Boeing 737 Max.

  8. The Gripen is the sensible choice, Period!
    Canadian Air Force – Sensible SAAB Solution-Canadian Made
    Fighter Replacement
    Gripen acquisition costs substantially less than “Canadianized” F35
    The Gripen can and should be “Canadian Made”
    Canadianized F-35 includes costly modification for a Drag Chute, the F-35 Has no Tail Hook for Arrestor Equipped Runways
    At the present time Canada does not have Air to Air refueling capability for the F-35; expensive modifications to the F-35 will be required for present Probe-and-Drouge method used by the Canadian Armed Forces.
    Operating cost of the Gripen is substantially less (estimated 75% Lower) this equates to more flying hours, more flying hours means happier pilots; happier pilots stay in the service longer, Canada will continue to have unsurpassed professional pilots.
    Gripen allows for more aircraft, higher sortie rates and greater availability rates. The Gripen can be refueled and re-armed in 10 minutes.
    The F 35 relinquishes it “Stealth” characteristics in the ground attack role of when carrying external weapons and fuel tanks. Technology will defeat the F 35 “clean” configuration in the next decade before the F 35 is fully operation in Canada.
    Gripen is not dependent on U.S. regulations or restrictions it is time to end the reliance on American systems, doctrine and economic strangle hold as the demonstrated with Bombardier C Series Aircraft
    The Gripen can operate from all Canadian Forces bases; the F 35 will require expensive infrastructure modifications and maintenance facilities.
    The Gripen is certified for Meteor BVRM far superior than the AIM-120 presently used on CF-18
    Gripen allows Canada open access to software architecture & development upgrades can be Canadian developed and designed as required.
    The Gripen is already serving in NATO Air Forces
    Fielding a fighter made on Canadian soil, by Canadians would be a great source of national pride

    1. This man right here knows what he is talking about, well said.
      Never mind the Boeing salesmen that wrote the article.
      Gripen for Canada!!

  9. It’s all nice sales pitch. I would like to hear from the Canadian side how it ranks in our mission requirements and other commitments before we make that final choice

  10. Any US purchase will ultimately be tied to USA foreign policy.
    The F35 is a USA first policy aircraft that is not an operationally stand alone product.
    Whatever aircraft Canada purchases it should have the unique performance we require plus be independent of our southern neighbours demands which have been proved to be schizophrenic.

  11. Sorry Gents but I strongly disagree.
    The Arctic and or white possible South
    China Sea is going to be the primary concern of Canada not far off battlefields in the Middle East against Old soviet era migs The Saab is 15 year old platform the super hornet the same . Both generation 3 aircraft. Any RCAF will be a flying deadman the minute he gets off the ground and all the electronic upgrades in the world will not change that. If we are going to fulfill our obligations to NORAD NATO and our pilots we need to buy the only aircraft on the list that has a better than 70% chance of surviving ans engagement with Russian or Chinese generation 5 aircraft that leaves the F-35. Anything else in the list is a vanity purchase to say we did some thing .

    1. Having 2x the number of Gripen E, with its most likely superior electronic warfare systems, would result in a far more capable air force to deal with those barely existing Chinese and Russian fifth-gen fighters than having a handful of F-35 and spending an insane amount of money on infra and trying to just keep them in the air. Which, mind you, will be all paid to Lockheed Martin, hoping at some point they will allow to use the far superior European Meteor and IRIS-T missiles, hoping at one point in the future they will reach the level of networked warfare Sweden is running among not just ground and fighters but peer-to-peer between fighters and other aircrafts, for 40-50 years already…
      I’m in the US but from where I see (NY) the dumbest idea of all is clearly blowing your money on the F-35 when you can not only manufacture but even co-develop your own Gripen Es with Saab, just like Brazil is doing it now (and it only required a 36-plane initial order, most of it they will already mfr in their new plant, eventually scalling up to 80-100 fighters.)
      Be smart, neighbors, think ahead 30+ years and the fact that the Gripen can be operated from arctic roads, refueled and rearmed in 15 minutes under an overpass, if necessary. From all the money you save on the nightmarish F-35 infra requirements you can operate 1.5-2x the number of Gripens you manufacture yourself…

  12. I would like to see a mixed fleet of F-35 A and Super Hornets. If the RCAF is committing to 88 Jets why can we not purchase 60 of the Super Hornets and 28 of the F-35A. This would allow us access to two of the most effective fighter Jets on the planet. Allow for greater mission diversity as well as a continuation of enhanced domestic high tech jobs provided by the F-35 and manufacturing jobs from Constructing the super Hornet in Canada.

    1. This is a totally unnecessarily expensive option! Every nation is trying to reduce fleet mix to save costs. We need ONE multi role fighter can do the missions. What does Canada really need? Intercept some russian bombers and a few NATO missions. If there are “capabilities” we don’t have the other allies can do it for NATO missions. Home air defence against bombers doesn’t need stealth!

      1. Ken, I get your point. And to some degree I concur. If we as Canadians are willing to limit our future military role to home defence you make perfect sense. My reasons are twofold. First Canada has a history of participating in international conflicts further afield and I am certain that we as members of NATO will be involved overseas conflicts in the future. A mixed fleet will allow our future governments to offer serious contributions to our allies and their efforts and allow for greater flexibility in decision making.
        Second, military procurement should also be used in this country as a way to develop high tech industries and jobs. By purchasing 2 different Jets we maintain the benefit of continued participation in the F-35 program as well as the benefits of manufacturing either a Boeing or Saab product in Canada with all the spin off benefits that entails.
        In the 21st century aerospace technology as well as other defence technologies will be a very important part of the world economy and the coincidental simultaneous procurement of both the fighter jet replacement and the Type 26 frigate are a fantastic opportunity to maximize development of these industries. By purchasing two different fighter Jets we would be creating a greater diversity of jobs as well as maximizing the transfer of technology to our industries. I don’t see this as a waste of money but as an opportunity to help expand an already successful industry that will help keep us among the leading world economies.

  13. First I am Canadian from Québec, and I am all for the Gripen as the best option to defend our Nothern territories for the same reasons the pro-Gripens stated earlier. The F35’s are still not fully operational, regularly breaking down and the US are cutting back on their purchases of the F35 and buying more F15! The pro-F18 writers are probably Americans and are most likely not aware of Boeing’s catastrophic harm to the Canadian economy. The Canadian Air Force and Governement will make the right decision in buying the Gripen! Justin will keep his promiss !

    1. Your position makes sense from a Quebec standpoint. Only thing JT is concerned with is Quebec jobs.

  14. F-18E was a new plane designed to look like an old plane. It was never particularly good. The Gripen is a generation ahead in design and technology. Its so good the USAF T7 redhawk is based on it and the USAF is now talking about a fighter version of the Redhawk. Buying Gripen would be a HUGE boost to the Canadian aerospace sector and in the end, that is the most important. After all we know all 3 planes can probably do a good job. It also has a deriviatve engine from our F-18 fleet which will save a lot of time and money on training.

  15. I would argue that it is critical for Canada to strike a balance between interoperability with the US and a degree of autonomy from it. This is why I think the Super Hornet is the best option for Canada. My understanding is that the Saab Gripen would have serious deficiencies in terms of interoperability and with its capabilities more generally. By contrast the F-35, in addition to being exceedingly expensive to operate as well as to acquire, would leave the RCAF heavily reliant on the US for the maintenance of Canada’s own Air Force. One doesn’t have to have a particularly long memory to know how unreliable the US can be as an ally. Much more of the maintenance for the Super Hornet can be conducted in Canada, creating Canadian jobs and assuring greater sovereign control over the RCAF capabilities. We need to be able to collaborate with the United States and be able to carry on independently when necessary.

    I have another thought that favours the Super Hornet. It may be a pipe dream, but I wonder if we might acquire more than 88 Super Hornets, say 100 to 120. Furthermore, I wonder if we might be able to reach a long-term agreement with the United Kingdom in order to have a squadron of Canadian Super Hornets serving as a regular component of the British Carrier Strike Group Air Wing. Britain would have to invest in EMALS and AAG, but the RCAF could then serve as a real force multiplier, extending the range of the British F-35Bs as well as providing a combat aircraft with a much heavier payload than the F-35B when it flies in stealth, bringing the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers to their full potential, something that Britain can’t afford to do right now. Canada would then have considerable influence over what missions the carrier strike group is assigned, greatly extending Canada’s influence in the global security arena. The RCAF would also then be able to develop expertise in carrier-board operations, which could inform the design of a Canadian aircraft carrier a number of years from now, in the 2040s perhaps. It may be a pipe dream, and it won’t happen under Trudeau, but I think it would be good.

  16. The government of Canada will not buy a fighter that is incapable of operating with other NATO air forces. If the government of Canada determines that the Gripen can operate satisfactorily with other NATO air forces, the Gripen is the obvious choice because it provides greater economic benefits for Canada than the U.S. fighters and it will advance Canada’s aerospace industry more than the U.S.-manufactured fighters. The Gripen can do whatever Canada needs a fighter plane to do, and purchasing it will be better for Canada overall.

  17. As Canada moves closer to a final decision on its future fighter, careful consideration should be given to the efforts of its allies in procuring their new fifth-generation stealth fighters. As we see playing out, unaffordable operating costs and questionable reliability mean fewer fifth-gen stealth fighters and less capability. The Netherlands and United Kingdom had planned to acquire 85 and 138 stealth fighters, respectively, however, both countries are now looking at a 50% and 65% reduction to their F-35 fleets. The Italian Air Force recently announced a 41-aircraft reduction to their F-35 fleet.
    Delivery of Australia’s first F-35s was expected in 2012, however, program delays forced Australia to purchase Super Hornets to cover a critical capability gap. Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers remain on Australia’s front line as the government now considers the number of F-35s the Royal Australian Air Force will need in their fighter force.
    The U.S. Air Force (USAF) recently announced their plans to dramatically reduce the size of their F-35 fleet by over 700 fighters and divert funding to overhaul their legacy F-16 and F-15 fighter fleets. The USAF also announced a “clean-sheet” fighter development program to find a more affordable and reliable advanced fighter aircraft
    Challenging the relevance of fifth-generation stealth fights are new air defence systems that now employ “counter-stealth” and “passive-sensor” technology. F-35 “static-stealth” is effective against older legacy air defence systems that use active radars to engage their targets, however, modern-day counter-stealth technology has made F-35 static-stealth all but obsolete in the new security environment. The Block III Super Hornet employs the same counter-stealth technology, which gives it a “first-look, first shot” game-changing advantage – the ability to engage stealth fighters at long range, beyond F-35 radar capabilities.
    It is well known that stealth fighters forfeit their stealth advantage when carrying external pylons and weapons, however, also concerning is the F-35’s degraded performance and loss of maneuverability when loaded with external payloads. In stark contrast, the Super Hornet has unrestricted flying characteristic in all configurations, even when carrying a max-load of pylons, bombs and missiles.
    Super Hornet procurement costs are the lowest of North American-built fighters by 30%, and according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Full Life Cycle Costs of the Super Hornet, which account for approximately 75% of the total program cost, are the lowest by almost 50%. This would see a savings of over $10 billion to Canada’s defence budget, a fiscal reality that any political leader or tax payer would welcome.

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