Things are heating up in the Canadian fighter contract competition as Saab, Boeing and Lockheed all fight to offer the best deal to the government of that country. At stake is a contract expected to be worth up to $19 billion dollars to replace the Royal Canadian Air Forces (RCAF) aging F-18 Hornets, locally designated the CF-188.
Eighty-eight aircraft are required and the situation for the RCAF is becoming somewhat critical as their current fleet are past the need for replacement and continue to fly with increasing costs for reduced capacity.
In 2010 the Canadian government announced that the Lockheed Martin F-35 was to be the CF-188’s replacement, and the country had been an early partner in the JSF program, joining in 1997 and investing hundreds of millions of dollars into the program. Deliveries were scheduled to begin in 2016.
However, concerns over short and long term costs of the F-35 made the acquisition a highly contentious election issue, with heavy criticism of the purchase in the press. In 2015 the Liberal Party won a crushing victory in elections, one of their manifesto promises being that they “…will not buy the F-35 stealth fighter-bomber.”
This has left the RCAF to deal with a shrinking and aging air defence fleet. As an interim 25 Australian F-18As – being made surplus by that country’s own F-35 acquisition – were purchased to provide supplementary aircraft and spares to keep the current fleet flying, but this was very much a stopgap measure and added an extra $500 million to the bill.
The decision to drop the F-35 seemed to throw open the option to other fighter manufacturers and so Saab with their Gripen,
all offered to fulfil the contract.
A key requirement was that substantial work on the new aircraft would be undertaken in Canada. The nation has an advanced aircraft industry and has license built most of its fighter aircraft since the Cold War. Guaranteeing work for this industry and protecting the large number of jobs involved was (and is) a critical Canadian political concern.
However, things changed in July 2019 when the government announced that they would consider the F-35 as a potential candidate.
In many ways this aircraft is a natural fit for Canada’s requirements. The nation’s aircraft industry is already heavily involved in the type’s construction as part of the international partnership building the F-35, meeting this critical requirement already.
Additionally, there can be no doubt that in technical terms the F-35 is the more advanced aircraft, with stealth features and technical capabilities that put it half a generation ahead of its competitors.
And it is certainly going to be the major Western fighter aircraft for the foreseeable future; in March 2020, Lockheed announced they had delivered the 500th F-35 and that the aircraft was then in service with nine nations.
These factors certainly made Eurofighter think twice on their bid and they dropped out in August 2019.
But the other bidders have risen to the challenge.
Boeing, initially non-committal, came out in November with a proposal for their F-18E Block III.
The company focused a lot of attention on the fact that they currently perform all maintenance on the RCAFs current CF-188 fleet in country. This would continue if the F-18E was selected, but it was likely that much maintenance work on the F-35 would be undertaken in the United States.
They also point out that the F-18 is substantially cheaper to operate than the F-35, with costs projected at $18,000 per flight hour for the Hornet as compared to $44,000 for the more complicated stealth fighter.
Though these two American giants are the favourites, Saab has also come out fighting. The Swedish defence contractor has teamed up with a host of Canadian aerospace companies to form the ‘Gripen for Canada Team’.
This new coalition offers a comprehensive package to the RCAF and Canadian government that maximises Canada’s participation in the building and maintenance of the Gripen should the aircraft be selected, committing to guarantees they made earlier in the competition.
Saab very much sees their Gripen E as the perfect answer to Canada’s problems. Designed for use on rough airfields in artic conditions the Gripen is, according to Jane’s, the cheapest western fighter to operate. Costs per flight hour are thought to be at most a fifth of those of the F-35, and possibly as little as an eighth.
That is a huge saving over the projected lifespan of the selected fighter, which will likely serve over the next 40-to-50 years. Combined with the industrial concessions Saab is offering, politically the Gripen is a real front runner.
However, the question is will this aircraft be competitive over that service life in the face of continually developing threats.
The Gripen E is an excellent aircraft, without doubt, and the Swedes at least are confident that it is more than able of holding its own for the foreseeable future against any Russian capability, which is believed to be overestimated.
But with the F-35 definitively the superior aircraft, it looks like the Canadian fighter contract is going to boil down to the old conundrum of “cost vs. capability”.
Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published in the UK by Little, Brown in September 2018.